Guest Post by Paul Schoellhamer
Railbanking is a real thing, but some of the claims being made about it here in Santa Cruz County have no basis in reality.
Railbanking was a legal sleight-of-hand (and I mean that in a good way) that was created by Congress in 1983 to solve a very specific problem: flaws in some railroad land deeds were making it difficult for some of those properties to be converted by local governments into recreational trails.
In that purpose, Congress’s 1983 railbanking provision has mostly been a success: a lot of abandoned rail rights-of-way have been turned into recreational trails. Across the U.S. railbanking has, in 37 years and over 300 specific projects, facilitated the conversion of roughly 6000 miles of rail right-of-way. And those have been all kinds of conversions: trails adjacent to tracks and trails in place of tracks, trails that were paved or not paved but improved or that offered no improvements at all. (In a few cases the rail-right-of-way was just left as a place to cross-country ski in winter – snowfall being the only improvement.) We have a lot of real world experience with railbanking.
Greenway now argues that railbanking can do something very specific here in Santa Cruz County: we can with railbanking remove the rail line entirely and pave it over with asphalt or concrete and then at some point in the future we can reverse course, tear up all that pavement, rebuild the rail line, and offer some type of electric light rail transit service. The question before us is: Is that a realistic possibility we would be leaving for our kids and grandkids? Or are we being misled into a dead-end?
We could have a theoretical debate about what could or could not happen in a distant future, but we don’t need to. We have 37 years and roughly 6000 miles of real world experience with railbanking. That real world experience tells us volumes about what railbanking realistically can and cannot do.
And here is what all that real world experience is telling us: as much as railbanking has accomplished over all those years and all those miles, it has NEVER done what Greenway says it can do here in Santa Cruz County. To be specific, Greenway claims that railbanking would make it a realistic possibility that we could remove the rail line entirely and pave it over with asphalt or concrete, and then many years later decide to rip it all up and rebuild the rail line -- and that has NEVER happened in the entire history of railbanking.
The point is simply this: Greenway should be honest with the public. Greenway can advocate tearing up the tracks if they want to, but they should stop holding out to the public the unrealistic claim that under their proposal throwing around the word “railbanking” has any realistic chance of bringing back rail service in the future. Tear it up and pave it over and it very likely is gone forever -- that’s what honesty looks like.
That being the case, the question becomes: Should we sitting here in 2022 be making a decision for 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, when we have (let’s face it) very limited ability to predict what that world will look like then? Or should we in fairness leave that decision to be made by those living in that world, including our kids and grandkids?
Paul Schoellhamer worked for many years as legislative staff in the US House of Representatives, focusing on transportation issues. He now lives in South County.
Modern transportation experts agree on a few things:
Adding passenger rail transit to our bus system will increase county-wide use of public transit from 13,700 trips to 34,200 trips every single day according to the RTC’s recent Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis (TCAA). That is a 150% increase in public transit ridership county wide. The data is in, and as a result, the county Regional Transportation Commission has selected electric passenger rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative for adding public transit to the rail corridor.
To support this 150% increase in public transit ridership, local funds will be needed to match available state and federal funding. The RTC’s draft TCAA Business Plan states that besides a traditional sales tax, other sources of local funds include “funds from vehicle levy or registration fees, local fuel tax, property tax, income tax, transient occupancy tax, student fees, vehicle miles traveled charges, and parking fees.” What the Business Plan doesn’t say is how to move forward.
Proactive communities are leading the way in finding the equitable “how” to fund expansions of public transit. One of the most successful strategies is the “collaborative” model utilized by the City of Portland in its Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) project, grounded in a commitment to Transportation Justice.
One of the most amazing things about Portland's community-wide effort is that its final report outlines seven near-term and three long-term funding strategies and of these strategies, none involves a sales tax. It should come as no surprise; the final report was unanimously adopted by the Portland City Council with direction to staff to implement the recommendations.
The benefits of improving our public transportation system are so numerous, it is short-sighted and unjust to delay finding the funding to transform our transportation system into the more equitable, sustainable and economically just system we want and need. Let’s take advantage of the tremendously creative energy in our community and go to work on a “POEM” project of our own.
Dear Supervisor McPherson and members of the SCCRTC:
We write you today to urge you not to proceed with any efforts to abandon freight service on the Felton Branch Rail Line or the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. These rail lines ensure there is a rail connection for Santa Cruz County and the rest of California, which may be critical in providing an essential route to the San Lorenzo Valley and other areas during future fire emergencies related to climate change, severe drought and catastrophic wildfires.
New technologies and innovative solutions to climate-driven emergencies are in development in California and beyond. For example, fire trains are beginning to see use to help fight major wildfires. This was the case in Northern California during the 2021 Dixie Fire. Fire trains use water and retardant, hauled by rail in tanker cars. The trains also include firefighting professionals who battle wildfires from the train, helping to protect watersheds and critical infrastructure.
Freight use abandonment of either rail line will lead to railbanking, which would result in tearing out the tracks, thus eliminating a potentially critical tool in the years ahead as we learn to adapt to the new realities of climate change.
As you may be aware, there are areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains that are only accessed via the rail line, such as within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the Pogonip open space area.
Coupled with new technologies, such as fire trains that are under study in California, is major new funding for wildfire prevention and protection that is being developed by both the state and federal governments. It is important for Santa Cruz County to maximize options for future resources and to not get left behind in funding and policy decisions that could potentially benefit our region.
We urge you to maintain the Felton Branch Rail Line and the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line as critical infrastructure for our community.
Robert Gray, Fire Chief, Felton Fire District
Dan Walters, Fire Chief, Zayante Fire District
Stacie Brownlee, Fire Chief, Ben Lomond Fire District
Mark Bingham, Fire Chief, Boulder Creek Fire District
Jim Anderson, Vice Chair, Felton Fire District
Bob Locatelli, Fire Director, Boulder Creek Fire District
Sam Robustelli, Fire Director, Boulder Creek Fire District
Published by San Lorenzo Valley Post
To read the original article on the SLV Post site click SLV Fire Officials Respond to RTC: Oppose Forced Abandonment of the Felton Branch Line.
Last week during the January RTC meeting, it became clear that the rumors we had heard about the RTC seeking “adverse abandonment” were true. Adverse abandonment means that the one calling for it wants to take away rail rights from users of a rail line.
What surprised us the most was which rail line the RTC was attacking first. The RTC has confirmed that in order to pave the way to abandon and railbank the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, the RTC will be discussing an adverse abandonment of the Felton Branch Rail Line which is wholly owned by Roaring Camp Railroads.
Why is the RTC making such hostile moves?
The RTC staff has released a statement claiming they are making this move in order to save money on rail bridges and that Roaring Camp will still be able to operate if their branch line were abandoned. This is an inaccurate analysis and a mischaracterization of what this adverse action will actually do to our community as a whole and Roaring Camp in particular. Roaring Camp is rightly outraged at this attack (you can read their response here) as are we.
We firmly oppose abandoning our rail lines.
In the end, it is always better to invest in infrastructure for our future. Our mission is to advocate for both electric passenger rail and the 32 mile rail trail in the existing active freight corridor. Keeping our rail lines in the national system allows for stronger infrastructure for all uses, including emergency evacuations. Building load-limited bridges is not in our best interest.
We Do Not Support Abandonment
At the end of the day, we are a community, we need to come together not just to build the right systems and infrastructure that serve everyone, but also to support our local industries. Businesses like Roaring Camp are the heart of Santa Cruz County.
Please write to the RTC commissioners and let them know you do not support abandonment of either the FELTON or SANTA CRUZ BRANCH LINE. Furthermore, please mention the importance of keeping our lines to freight standard. We want electric passenger service that’s quiet and seamless in our community, but we also want bridges that are capable of supporting firefighting trains and any other needed services for our community now and in the future.
We want to build a resilient and multipurpose transportation system. We are horrified that some on the RTC have turned to threatening actions against a longstanding community business. We need the RTC to take a leading role in building a transportation system for the future, including ensuring we have the ability to protect and serve everyone.
Spanning two weekends — one each in Watsonville and Santa Cruz — the clean-energy, all-electric light rail vehicle gave the community a tangible example of what car-free travel could be like in the region.
“What an amazing way to see Santa Cruz! Pretty stoked to see some alternative clean energy transportation,” Aaron Bistrin of Santa Cruz shared on Instagram, representing a sentiment echoed by many other users of Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
More than 2,000 people took rides on the Coast Futura, including families, people with limited mobility and local elected officials. The streetcar demonstration was produced with support from a collaboration that included about 120 local volunteers, Roaring Camp Railroads and TIG/m, which manufactures the streetcar.
“We are at an exciting time here with this rail demo, addressing both climate change and the public transit equity crisis. Every segment of our community benefits from a robust, zero-emission public transit system that provides access to jobs, medical care, education, cultural events, shopping and connecting with friends.”
— Lani Faulkner, Coast Futura volunteer
The demonstration event began in Watsonville with a 5.2-mile out-and-back trip that included expansive views of agricultural land, rolling under a Highway 1 overpass and taking in rarely seen vistas in remote areas of Watsonville Slough.
In Santa Cruz, the Coast Futura departed from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, traversing the San Lorenzo River Trestle as it headed out on a 7-mile round-trip ride across the Santa Cruz Harbor, past Simpkins Swim Center, to the Capitola Bluffs and back. The streetcar quietly passed through numerous neighborhoods, past parks and schools. Despite running at much slower speeds than the vehicle is capable of, due to the need for upgrades to the rail tracks, afternoon riders reached Capitola in half the time of driving while gliding by traffic.
In total, the Coast Futura demonstration event included 68 runs over six days, covering 433 miles.
“Over the last couple days we’ve been able to ride and watch the demo train ‘cruz’ the Boardwalk to Capitola and back! We are incredibly impressed with all the passion, education, good energy, and overall community building vibe the leaders of Coast Futura have displayed. Thank you!”
— Joe Downie, Capitola resident via Instagram
The demonstration event ran on tracks that parallel sections of the Coastal Rail Trail in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville, illustrating how the rail corridor is wide enough to support rail service and a world-class bike and pedestrian path. A half-dozen sections of the Rail Trail are already completed or in progress.
The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) authorized the
demonstration as an opportunity for the public to see an example of a modern electric rail vehicle on two sections of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line track.
Earlier in 2021, following a comprehensive study, the RTC designated electric
passenger rail as the preferred alternative use of the publicly-owned rail corridor, envisioned to be established alongside a wide trail. The RTC’s conclusion was based on a “triple bottom line” focus on sustainability, including equity, environment and economy. This approach remains popular with the general public, as evidenced by the RTC’s public release of letters of support for rail transit it has received throughout 2021.
Though the Coast Futura demonstration was not a proposal for rail service, it was presented as an accessible, tangible concept intended to inspire a community discussion about the future of rail transit in Santa Cruz County. Organizers hope that discussion will include potential funding scenarios that could include state and federal funding, especially following the passage of President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
See the full story here: https://lookout.co/santacruz/coast-life/story/2021-11-12/clean-energy-coast-futura-rail-demo-met-with-excitement-hope-for-the-future
Over the past years despite negative messaging from public transportation opponents we continued to believe that Santa Cruz County residents favor improving public transportation and would support adding passenger rail. Now that the RTC has officially chosen clean-energy passenger rail as the Locally Preferred Alternative for transit in the rail corridor, and is developing a business plan, we thought it was important to hear from voters county-wide and to find out whether the public will support this plan. Today we’re writing to share the news with you. The results are in, and they blew us away. It turns out that when asked, 74% of active voters in Santa Cruz County support electric passenger rail service.
We knew that Santa Cruz County supports reducing pollution and that the need for better transportation options is clear to everyone. Despite that, we were surprised by both the depth and breadth of this support. The results are overwhelmingly positive across all five Supervisorial Districts. Depending on the district, 68% to 86% of survey respondents said they are in favor of the plan to provide clean energy light rail between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. This county-wide result is a watershed moment for transportation planning in Santa Cruz County.
The idea to tear out the track and replace them with only a trail is deeply unpopular, as is the notion of pausing rail service planning. Faced with a direct choice among continuing with the current plan for both the trail and passenger rail, continuing to build the trail but pausing the plan for passenger rail, or removing the tracks and converting the entire corridor to trail only, the survey found just 17% are in favor of tearing out the track and only 19% support a pause in planning. The majority of the county prefers continuing with the current plan for both trail and passenger rail.
Who Did the Research?
To conduct the survey, we chose California-based FM3 Research, a highly respected and independent public opinion research firm with a nearly 40-year track record of accurate, statistically valid research for non-profit organizations and local governments across the state and the U.S. A total of 618 interviews were conducted in mid-February. Participants were a randomly selected representative sample of our county’s active voters. They were contacted via email and/or phone numbers provided by the Santa Cruz County Registrar of Voters. The composition of the sample aligned with the characteristics of local voters including political party, age, gender, race/ethnicity and Supervisorial District. According to FM3, a sample of this size is commonly used for accurate analysis of the opinions of residents in an area such as Santa Cruz County and is consistent with research the firm did in advance of the successful passage of Measure D in Santa Cruz County in 2016.
We’re so excited to share this news with you. We’re pleased to know that transforming public transportation in Santa Cruz County has such overwhelming public support. Thank you to our donors both large and small. It was your support that enabled us to fund this research.
Our 2021 mission is clear. We must step up our efforts to reach out to all the residents of the county and to share the Coast Connect vision for public transportation: building the Rail Trail, adding clean energy light rail, and improving neighborhood streets for biking and walking.
We didn’t plan it out this way, but like a great transit connection, this good news synchronizes beautifully with our Spring Fundraising Challenge. This means that right now is a great time to celebrate the survey results and help us get ready for our 2021 effort by making a donation. If you would like to support our work, please click here and have your donation of any amount doubled until we reach our $40,000 match challenge. Thank you for your support!
FEBRUARY 18, 2021—SANTA CRUZ, CA—Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT) today announced the election of a new Board Chair, Faina Segal, who will serve for the next year.
Faina grew up in Watsonville and is especially passionate about improving access to opportunities for students in South County. Faina joined the Friends of the Rail & Trail Board of Directors in 2019, and brought her impressive organizing and partnership-building experience from her career in Silicon Valley to enhance the processes, systems and tools needed to grow FORT’s membership and impact .
“FORT has been instrumental in advocating for expanded public transportation in Santa Cruz County, which I believe is a keystone investment to building a more equitable and sustainable future for our county,” Segal said. “I am honored to have this opportunity to give back to my community by being a part of this movement.”
Faina is a big believer in public transportation, and has commuted via METRO to Cabrillo, UCSC and San Jose throughout her life. After graduating from UC San Diego, Faina worked for many years building global partnerships in Silicon Valley. Now she brings her experience to work toward equitable access to transportation resources throughout the county. Her background in engineering and technology also puts environmental issues at the forefront of her community involvement. Faina is committed to creating sustainable transportation options to contribute to an environmentally tenable plan for our community.
“Faina brings her impressive organizational and marketing experience to Friends of the Rail & Trail, which has allowed us to modernize our use of technology and improve our communication with the community,” said Sally Arnold, who served as FORT Board Chair Chair for 2019 and 2020. “I look forward to seeing where her leadership takes FORT in 2021."
FORT is currently working to promote the Coast Connect vision of a robust, modern, and efficient transportation system in Santa Cruz County through advocacy and educational programs.
“We believe the transportation infrastructure in our county should reflect our shared values of inclusion, equity, sustainability, and economic opportunity for all,” Segal said.
On February 3rd, 2021 we wrote to the RTC over concern of a misleading infographic being circulated by Greenway. This was our letter.
Dear RTC Staff,
An infographic that includes false and misleading information concerning rail in Santa Cruz County has been circulated among our community and to the RTC Commissioners. We are all aware of the great dangers that fake news and false equivalencies can do in a democratic society. We urge the RTC Staff to address these false claims publicly, especially for the benefit of the commissioners, who will be responsible for voting tomorrow. We have addressed some of these falsehoods below that are easily verifiable based on the RTC’s current studies, however we urge the professional RTC staff to clearly address this false information to prevent the community being misled by unverified sources and individuals.
1) $242/month as the cost is FALSE – the price of an all-access transit pass has not been established and will likely not exceed $150 as evidenced by the fact that METRO currently offers an Amtrak/Hwy17 Express monthly pass for $145 which includes unlimited use of both METRO and Santa Clara County’s VTA systems. https://www.scmtd.com/en/fares/fares Even the much larger VTA offers an all access transit pass to their entire light rail and bus system for only $180/month.
2) Trail-only completed in five years is FALSE – pursuing a trail-only idea would delay the construction of ANY trail for at least 8 years as evidenced by RTC staff report titled “Options for use of the rail corridor” presented at the December 8, 2016 public meeting of the RTC. RTC Agenda
3) Stating that children will be at risk is FALSE – this is an utterly baseless and dangerous claim; in fact, as supported by the RTC’s own studies, adding rail transit will reduce injury accidents throughout our community. This safety information is contained in the performance metrics in the 2019 Unified Corridor Investment Study indicating that the Rail with Trail Scenario B will result in 118 fewer accidents per year than the Trail Only Scenario A all while saving us more than $26M per year. Final UCS
When one or more claims are plainly false, the entire package must be rejected and the source should be called into question moving forward. Friends of the Rail and Trail trusts that the commissioners will rely on their staff and consultants for facts and reject the deceptive infographic and related content submitted by Greenway’s Mr. Colligan.
FORT has faith that the commissioners will trust the science and facts behind the current TCAA study outcome, which was carefully prepared by a project team consisting of RTC and METRO staff capably supported by a team of nationally recognized professional consultants and with the full participation of the entire community in a transparent public process.
In 2016, the RTC reviewed and rejected the error-filled and misleading “2016 Great Santa Cruz Trail” document submitted by Mr. Colligan, before The Great Santa Cruz Trail Group changed their name to the more politically advantageous “SCC Greenway.” These new and similarly-misleading materials should be handled in the same way. When false information is inserted into our governmental processes we are all responsible for calling it out and refuting it.
Thank you for your continued commitment to our County.
Board Chair, Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail
Happy new year!
2020 is drawing to a close. I am amazed as I reflect on all that has changed in these 12 months.
We kicked off 2020 in January by hosting a public groundbreaking party for the westside trail construction and almost a year later, in December, we are following all the Covid restrictions while celebrating a virtual ribbon cutting for that same completed trail. What a way to bookend this strange year.
The westside trail is open and you can play with us this week!
20 years of citizen advocacy finally came to fruition with the opening of the westside trail this month. If you’ve been on the trail you have probably noticed all the many wonderful features. Wide, flat, level, it is the quickest way to cross the westside of town. Crosswalks and crossbikes make street crossings easy. At busy streets, pushbuttons turn on warning lights for cars to encourage them to yield. There are always friendly people out just enjoying the space or using it to run their errands as many businesses are right along the trail.
Between December 26 and January 3 there will be another dimension to enjoying the trail. Friends of the Rail & Trail are sponsoring a scavenger hunt along the 1.2 miles. Bring your whole family for some socially distant fun. Find the clue cards posted on the fence, answer the trivia questions, post on social media, and enter to win a prize.
The completion of the westside trail is one of our important accomplishments this year. But it’s not the only one. Despite the many challenges we faced this year, we have adapted to the times and moved ahead.
When Covid hit in March we were ready with a strong tech team who helped us move seamlessly to shared documents and remote meetings so our education and advocacy could continue without pause.
Good thing too, because 2020 has been the year of the Regional Transportation Commission’s (RTC) Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis (TCAA). This comprehensive study comparing high capacity public transit options for the rail corridor has included many opportunities for public input and FORT has been present every step of the way to make sure our voice for passenger rail service is heard. A matter of fact, throughout the TCAA, public comment has been running between 80-90% in favor of passenger rail service! That’s YOU. That’s the emails you’ve sent. That’s the surveys you’ve taken. That’s your comments at RTC meetings.
In June we launched our Coast Connect vision and we’ve leveraged it to increase engagement. Many organizations, businesses and individuals have endorsed the vision already. If you haven’t endorsed yet, it’s easy to do. We launched 2 new websites, new social media channels, improved our newsletter and expanded our capacity to connect to our supporters. The Coast Connect vision has been a powerful tool for public outreach bringing hundreds of new people to Friends of the Rail and Trail.
Of course all this growth costs money and this year we had a successful fundraising year despite all the challenges. Our donors realized that in times of crisis, yes one must deal with the immediate needs, but one must also take advantage of the moment to create a better future. This positive visionary leadership is what Friends of the Rail and Trail provides and we are honored that so many of you have chosen to be part of it.
This year we launched our first campaign for monthly donors called the Coast Connect Club,. Many of you stepped up, joined the club and became monthly donors. That regular income is helping us plan for even more growth in 2021!
Whether it’s a one time donation, or a monthly commitment, we invite each of you to make a contribution to our successes yet to come in 2021.
Action Alert for Jan 14
After months of study and public input, the RTC staff are recommending that electric passenger rail be the Locally Preferred Alternative for transit on the corridor. Now we need the commissioners to affirm that in 2021.
There will be a public hearing held remotely on January 14 to hear the public’s response to this recommendation. Attending a public hearing remotely is not hard, but to participate meaningfully requires some special instructions. So if you’d like to stand up and be counted at the RTC meeting, please let us know. We’ll contact you closer to the 14th with directions to help you have an easy and satisfying remote RTC experience. It's your chance to tell your representatives on the RTC that you want a complete transportation system including passenger rail service.
I think we are all hoping that 2021 will be a better year. You can be part of creating that better year by volunteering with Friends of the Rail and Trail. Do you like Social Media? Video? Photography? Writing? Researching? Talking to others? Data bases? Web design? We have so many ways you can help – most from the socially distant safety of your own home. Visit our Take Action page at CoastConnect.org to volunteer. One of us will call you and we’ll find just the right way to connect you with our fun group of citizen activists.
See you on the trail in a happy 2021!
Friends of the Rail & Trail
Do you love the Coast Connect Vision of a modern, reliable, equitable, and climate-conscious transportation system that provides accessible and car-free travel options throughout the county? Then please click here to join the people who support this vision with a monthly donation!
Members of our Coast Connect Club provide Friends of the Rail & Trail with predictable income, even in unpredictable times, which means we can focus on doing what we do best: educating and advocating for a wide and safe trail system, innovative rail technology, and integrated options to reach our final destinations via METRO buses, bicycling, walking and shared mobility options.
Our goal is to get 32 new monthly donors to join the Coast Connect Club. As an added incentive, a generous donor has agreed to donate $1,000 when we reach our goal! YOU can be part of this community-based effort to ensure our transportation system services the people, our planet and prosperity.
Join the Coast Connect Club today!
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Friends of the Rail & Trail is a grassroots transportation advocacy organization.