The February 3 Regional Transportation Commission meeting turned into a proxy battle surrounding the June “trail only” Greenway ballot initiative. RTC staff presented information about how adverse abandonment of the Felton line (owned by Roaring Camp) could clear the way legally for them to abandon and tear out tracks on the Santa Cruz Branch line. Not surprisingly, the public has been outraged by this suggestion. Over 6,000 emails were sent to the RTC opposing this effort to destroy both our transit future and Roaring Camp, a beloved local woman-owned business.
No vote on rail was scheduled or taken. However, in a stunning new twist, at this meeting during the oral staff presentation on a different item, RTC planning staff member Sarah Christiansen revealed a proposal to completely remove the two rail bridges that cross Highway 1 in Aptos and replace them only with bike-and-pedestrian bridges. The stated goal of this staff proposal was to increase the competitiveness for grant applications for the highway-widening project. Strikingly, this proposal was not included in the written staff report. Needless to say, leaving out such a critical element of the proposal from the written record in the public packet contradicts RTC policy, as well as requirements for transparency in government.
New Trail-Only Policy with No Public Process
This new staff proposal to entirely scrap the rail bridges represents a dramatic shift in both the highway widening project plans and rail corridor project plans, without any public process or acknowledgement. If you are as dismayed at this subversion of good governance and good policy as we are, you can click here to write the commissioners. The next opportunity to let them know in person is the Transportation Policy Workshop on February 17th. Attend this meeting and help put pressure on the RTC. Remind them that both the Unified Corridor study and the Transportation Corridor Alternatives Analysis study settled on rail transit and trail together as the best use of the corridor. Ask them if they intend to abandon the public process or to move forward with the plan of record. Sacrificing the publicly owned rail line to reduce costs for the highway widening project is unacceptable and outrageous.
Adverse Abandonment on the Felton Line?
Why was Roaring Camp and Adverse Abandonment of the Felton Line on the RTC agenda? RTC Executive Director Guy Preston summarized it in the very last sentence of his 13-page report to the Commission:
"...RTC’s ability to railbank [on the Santa Cruz Branch Line] could still be stopped by the opposition of [Roaring Camp, as] a potential stranded line..."
Mr. Preston seems to be using the threat of adverse abandonment to pressure Roaring Camp to agree to permit railbanking on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, or else be punished by the RTC with loss of the Felton Line. It's disturbing to see our Regional Transportation Commission engaged in this kind of behavior.
Highway Widening and the Rail Line
The RTC highway-widening project currently requires the rail bridges that cross the highway to be replaced with longer ones that can span the newly widened highway. You can see the project description on the RTC website here. As stated in the project description, so long as the Santa Cruz Branch Line remains active, the rail bridges must be preserved or replaced. In order to avoid this bridge-replacement cost, this new staff proposal is to file for Abandonment on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, and then to Railbank the line to clear the way for demolishing the bridges. However, Roaring Camp could block abandonment of the Santa Cruz Line. To prevent Roaring Camp from blocking abandonment on the Santa Cruz line, Executive Director Preston seems to be threatening them with Adverse Abandonment of the Felton line. If successful, Adverse Abandonment would make Roaring Camp powerless to oppose the Santa Cruz Branch Line abandonment. Either way, if the Santa Cruz Branch Line were abandoned, Roaring Camp would lose their connection to the national rail network and be unable to bring their locomotives and other rail equipment into their rail yard. Abandonment would also strip the Felton Line of federal protection and leave it to the whims of local control. To add extra intimidation, Brian Peoples, the former organizer and treasurer for Commissioner Koenig’s election campaign PAC, has a publicly stated goal of electing Supervisors in Districts 3 and 4 who will support demolishing the Felton Branch Line, paving it, and forcing Roaring Camp to convert to “rubber-wheeled” vehicles.
Aside from the implications for Roaring Camp, removal of the rail bridges without replacing them would obviously be devastating for the future of rail transit in Santa Cruz County. If the highway widening project is to proceed, funding to replace the rail bridges must be included in the project budget. We can't allow Santa Cruz County to proceed down the same path that Los Angeles and so many other communities in the USA did in the 50s. Tearing out the publicly owned tracks and widening freeways is not the way forward for a healthy and sustainable community.
Let’s keep the pressure on the RTC to protect, restore and put our rail lines back in service to the community. click here to write the commissioners. Attend the Transportation Policy Workshop on February 17th and tell them you want both rail and trail, and you want them to respect the public process.
Public Engagement at the RTC Meeting
Commissioner Sandy Brown reported receiving more than 6000 emails supporting Roaring Camp and opposing the RTC staff proposal for Adverse Abandonment of their Felton Branch Line, including this one from the San Lorenzo Valley fire chiefs. Here is a quote from their open letter to the RTC:
"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."
The vast majority of public comment was devoted to outrage over the RTC’s threat to force abandonment of the Felton Brach Line. The discomfort of the RTC Commissioners was evident. However, although they asked Mr. Preston to continue negotiating with Roaring Camp, the commission did not commit to preserving the rail lines.
RTC Commissioner Shiffrin on Greenway
The Greenway ballot initiative is widely acknowledged to be deceptive. At the RTC meeting, Commissioner Shiffrin had some great comments on what the initiative would actually do. You can view a transcription of his remarks at the California Local online news service here: https://californialocal.com/localnews/santa-cruz/ca/article/show/3010/3010-transcript-of-andy-shiffin-position-on-coastal-rail-trail/
Here is a small excerpt from his remarks:
"Despite the misleading rhetoric, if the freight easement is abandoned, Greenway supporters will undoubtedly advocate that the rail tracks be removed. And if they succeed, the likelihood of rail service ever returning between Santa Cruz and Watsonville is zero to none."
Thank you to Tony Russomanno for contributing to this story.
Editor's note 2/14/2022: this article has been updated slightly for increased accuracy.
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Friends of the Rail & Trail is a grassroots transportation advocacy organization.