By Aiyana Moya
The Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to oppose the potential abandoning of freight service on the Felton and Santa Cruz Rail Lines at its meeting Tuesday. The vote will have no formal power, but it signals to the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) that the council sides with Roaring Camp Railroads in the battle over the future of the rail lines.
On Feb. 3, the RTC held a public meeting about potentially abandoning the Felton Branch Rail Line, which would deem it “railbanked.” According to a staff report on the issue, this move would allow for the potential to haul freight in the future and would put off the estimated $50-plus million in repairs that the line needs.
But Roaring Camp sees the RTC’s proposal as “an aggressive attack” on the railroad, fueled by lobbyists working to “end rail in Santa Cruz County,” according to a public statement on the matter.
“We are in a deadlock,” said Councilwoman Sandy Brown, who is also on the RTC, at the council meeting. “That’s the reality. We are really stalled.”
All members of the council spoke about the importance of supporting transportation infrastructure when making their vote to oppose abandoning the freight lines. Councilmembers Donna Meyers and Justin Cummings also noted that although the repairs needed will be substantial, both in scope and funding, they aren’t unfeasible.
“This effort to bring rail and trail to our community has been going on since the late 80s,” said Cummings. “Over the past two years, we’ve been seeing segments get built, and the efforts over time are leading us to making rail and trail a reality. We need to do what we can to keep this effort alive.”
Council also discussed the city’s budget, which, according to City Interim Finance Director Bobby Magee, will need to see a cut of $2.5 million during the next fiscal year. At the current rate of spending and if no new sources of revenue are secured, Magee said, projections show the city’s reserves running dry by 2028.
“Our operations are stretched thin,” said City Manager Matt Huffaker. “That’s why a discussion around exploring this additional sales tax measure is going to be important as we [think about] long term financial planning.”
A proposal for a new sales tax is expected to be brought before the council in early March. City staff has been polling residents about a new sales tax, one that voters could see on the June 7 ballot this year. Some 59% of respondents supported a new sales tax according to a January poll, Huffaker said.
“New revenue opportunities will be a key piece of what that rebuilding looks like,” said Huffaker.
Read the original article at https://goodtimes.sc/santa-cruz-news/santa-cruz-city-council-opposes-abandoning-freight-lines/
By Jonathan Vankin
Sometime in 1865, 15 years after Santa Cruz became one of California’s original 27 counties, a group of the region’s richest men led by merchant and real estate tycoon Frederick Hihn and sugar magnate Claus Spreckels—both German immigrants who became millionaires in their Californian business ventures—led a push to build a railroad along the coastline. After considerable wrangling and political back-and-forth, by 1871 they’d convinced voters to back a bond measure to finance construction of the railroad.
The Southern Pacific Railroad, by far the most powerful corporation of any kind in the state at that time, began the process of surveying land for the rail line the following year. But a European stock market crash that led to a widespread railroad bond sell-off, and ignited what came to be called the Panic of 1873, spooked even the mighty Southern Pacific.
But not Hihn and Spreckels. They persuaded a group of local businessmen to back the rail line themselves, and even put some of their own cash into the endeavor, on top of the $100,000 in previously approved county funding (about $2.3 million in 2022 money). Construction got underway, carried out mostly by Chinese laborers who were paid one dollar per day for six 10-hour days per week, with two dollars deducted for meal expenses.
There was a brief roadblock in 1874 when lawyers for the city of Watsonville, understandably upset that the rail line would bypass their city, obtained a court injunction against county funds going to the rail line. Spreckels himself covered for the stalled county funds, pouring more of his own personal fortune into the project, and construction continued anyway.
A couple of years later, Hihn decided to extend the line into Wastonville after all. The city dropped its injunction. The first freight train on the tracks, pulled by a locomotive named Betsy Jane, delivered two loads of potatoes to the city of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Railroad after more than a decade was up and running.
Betsy Jane is long gone, and even the seemingly indomitable Southern Pacific Railroad has faded in the mists of history thanks to a 1996 corporate takeover by its competitor, Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad tracks laid down almost 150 years ago are still there.
Trains keep running along parts of the railway, some carrying freight, others carrying tourists. And yet, today, the Santa Cruz Rail Line is at the center of one of that county’s most heated, longest-running and complicated controversies.
What is the ‘Rail Trail’ Movement?Put simply, “Rail Trail,” or as it’s sometimes called, “Rails to Trails,” is a type of environmental conservation movement whose aim is to convert unused or underused rail corridors into scenic trails for hiking, biking and other types of outdoor recreation. The movement can trace its origins back to 1960, when the state of Wisconsin bought a segment of railway owned by the Chicago and North Western Railroad running between the cities of Elroy and Sparta. The state then converted the former rail corridor into a public trail perfect for mountain biking, snowmobiling, cross country skiing or plain old walking. Still popular today, the 39-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail stands as the first “rail trail” in the United States.
In 1980, Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, largely deregulating the rail industry, which had been in steady decline for much of the 20th century thanks to the automobile and the growth of commercial air travel. In the immediate postwar years, from 1944 to 1949, rail traffic dropped by 28 percent, after an earlier 50 percent collapse in the Great Depression. By the 1970s, 21 percent of the country’s railroad track was controlled by railroad companies in bankruptcy.
The Staggers Rail Act changed all that. Named for its sponsor, West Virginia Democratic Rep. Harley O. Staggers, described by the New York Times as an “old-style liberal,” the law took the authority to set railroad routes and service away from the government and put it into the hands of the railroad companies themselves. The Staggers Act is credited by experts for restoring the railroad industry to a healthy financial state with better, more efficient services and even reduced prices. A report by the Brookings Institute 25 years after passage of the act found that it had “accomplished its primary goal of putting the U.S. rail freight industry on a more secure financial footing,” and proven “a great boon for shippers as rail carriers have passed on some of their cost savings to them in lower rates and significantly improved service times and reliability.”
The law, however, also led the rail companies to abandon thousands of miles of track on poorly traveled routes in their campaign to increase efficiency.
There appear to be no reliable figures on exactly how many miles of abandoned track now exist in the United States. But tens of thousands seems like a reasonable estimate. The site Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places has compiled a crowdsourced, continually updated Google Map showing the exact locations of almost 10,000 individual stretches of abandoned track throughout the contiguous United States.
RailbankingAs railroads streamlined their operations by dumping poorly traveled routes and the tracks on which those routes were traveled, Congress began to worry that the country was losing too much railroad track. In 1983, federal legislators passed a set of amendments to the 1968 National Trails System Act—a law that created a network of federally managed trails—which allowed for a process that came to be known as railbanking.
Rather than allowing tracks to be simply abandoned, they could be conveyed to another owner, such as a state or county government, or even a private organization, and be held and maintained for possible future railroad use. Until that time (if it ever came), the right of way associated with the old tracks could be used as public bike and hiking trails—or other uses, as long as they did not prevent the tracks from re-converting to railroads if needed at some point down the line.
In February of 1986, a longtime environmental activist and avid bicyclist named Peter Harnik, then 36 years old, opened the Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) in Washington, D.C. The group would be dedicated to converting abandoned and railbanked tracks into trails for cycling, hiking, roller skating and whatever other recreational use came to mind.
While most of the projects RTC supports involve replacing tracks with trails, there are a growing number of trail AND rail projects, as electric trains become more efficient and affordable.
So, What’s Going On in Santa Cruz?In 1990, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC), the county’s Regional Transportation Planning Agency created by state legislation in 1972, started its effort to buy out a segment of the old Santa Cruz Railroad, running from Watsonville to Davenport. It wasn’t as easy as plunking $10.2 million on the counter and walking away with 32 miles of railroad track. The purchase wasn’t complete for another 22 years.
Why did the SCCRTC want the tracks so badly? “To expand transportation options for everyone in the community now and into the future,” the SCCRTC says on its website. “The goal is to maximize use by preserving a range of possible options including: a bicycle & pedestrian trail, transit, goods movement and recreational train activities.”
The SCCRTC’s plan was to maintain the tracks for use by freight trains, as well as commuter and/or tourist trains, while adding a trail alongside the existing railbed. The $10.2 million in state funds used to purchase the tracks—public money generated by 1990’s Proposition 116, the Rail Transportation Bond Initiative—specifically targeted that dual use.
But the final decision may not be up to the SCCRTC. A nonprofit known as Greenway Santa Cruz County has another idea—get rid of rail service altogether to create a “Greenway,” that is, “a wide pathway that safely separates people with small children and dogs from people traveling at higher speeds on bicycles, e-bikes, e-boards, and in wheelchairs—providing both healthy recreation and convenient transportation.”
Greenway has a petition that the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors took up at a Feb. 1 meeting. The nonprofit asked the supervisors to place its petition before voters as a ballot measure in June, 2022, leaving the decision on the future of the Rail Trail project up to county residents. The supervisors at that meeting decided not to decide, putting off the question to a later meeting.
SCCRTC Wants to Railbank the Old TracksThe SCCRTC plans were also intensely controversial. At a Feb. 3 meeting, at which no action was taken, the commission presided over a lengthy public discussion of its plans to railbank the Santa Cruz Railroad line that it has owned since 2012. If it goes ahead with the railbanking project, the line would isolate the Felton Branch Line now used by Roaring Camp Railroads, a tourist rail company that has been in business taking passengers from its property in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the beach since 1985. Roaring Camp’s Felton Branch Line would be completely cut off from the national rail network.
The proposed railbanking would also mean the end of freight service on the Santa Cruz line, another business in which Roaring Camp is engaged. Railbanking would reportedly save $50 million to $60 million in maintenance costs for the train tracks, and put the tracks under the complete control of the SCCRTC, and away from federal regulators. SCCRTC says it is also considering “adverse abandonment” of Roaring Camp’s Felton Branch Line, which would preclude freight service on its tracks for good.
“Loss of our rights to freight service on the Felton Branch Rail Line line will mean a loss of current federal protection of our line,” wrote Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark in a public statement. “Loss of federal protection will mean that our ability to reach the Boardwalk with our tourist trains will be entirely controlled by the [SCCRTC] and subject to the whims of the current [SCCRTC] board and leadership, as well as those of the future.”
Alternate SCCRTC Commissioner Felipe Hernandez at the Feb. 3 meeting said that railbanking would also have a potentially devastating effect on Watsonville’s economy.
“If we lose freight and the possibility of a passenger train, Watsonville’s 56,000 residents—85% of which are Latino—stand to lose everything, from jobs to transportation equity to (an acceptable) quality of life,” Hernandez said, as quoted by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We need to preserve the rail lines, protecting our county’s gems like Roaring Camp as well as our economic assets like Big Creek (Lumber).”
So when will the SCCRTC make the decision on whether to go ahead with the railbanking of the Santa Cruz Railroad line—the process that clears the way for railbaking the tracks, and which according to Clark will lead to the “slow death” of her company?
“I don’t really feel comfortable putting a timeline on it,” said SCRTC Executive Director Guy Preston, in an interview with Santa Cruz Local. “It may never happen.”
Read the original article at https://californialocal.com/localnews/santa-cruz/ca/article/show/3042-rail-trail-movement-explained/
Transcript by California Local
Andy Schiffrin, who served for 40 years as an administrative analyst for the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, delivered these remarks during SCCRTC’s Feb. 3 meeting, where the commission took up a proposal to close off Santa Cruz area rail lines to freight service. The meeting, which took place on Zoom, had more than 500 viewers, and RTC reports that it received around 6,000 emails on the topic.
Here, Schiffrin discusses the Greenway initiative, charging that its supporters “make a number of misleading arguments that only confuse the issue.”
Schiffrin is a longtime lecturer on land use planning in the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC. He serves on the SCCRTC as an alternate to County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, we have many members of the public who have been here before. We have also other members of the public who are here for the first time and it may be helpful to take a little time to put the issue into context.
The staff report, I think, was very detailed and provided a lot of information—but if you’re new to the game it could be very confusing. It was somewhat difficult to understand, even for me, who's been in the game for a long time, so I wanted to talk about: Why is rail abandonment even an issue, [and] why are we talking about it? It's really about, what do we want to do with the rail corridor? And in the end the choices are simple, although the details are extremely complex.
If I could give a little background: There are two types of transportation on railroad tracks—there’s freight service and there’s passenger service. Freight service is regulated by the federal government; passenger service isn’t. Historically the Santa Cruz Rail Line has been used for both freight and passenger.
A freight easement on a line gives a rail operator the right to run freight trains on the line. When the RTC bought the rail line it bought the property, but Union Pacific sold freight rights to a private company. The RTC has an agreement with the current owner of the freight easement where each party has rights and obligations.
A freight easement can be abandoned in two ways, but it must be approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board, the STB. The owner of the freight easement can voluntarily apply for abandonment, or a public agency like the RTC can apply for an adverse abandonment.
The company that holds the freight easement now has refused to apply for abandonment voluntarily. Ostensibly I think based on the opposition of Roaring Camp. The STB will only approve abandonment—again, as I understand it—based on evidence that freight service is no longer viable and won’t be in the future.
I think that’s the context in which we’re all dealing with this issue.
Here are a few what I think of as indisputable facts:
The rail line from Watsonville north is currently inoperable for either freight or passenger service. It needs significant repairs before trains can run on it again. We’ve heard a lot of testimony about how much those repairs may or may not cost, but they are needed. It’s inoperable now.
Secondly, there is a proposal from Greenway for a 20-foot-wide trail in the existing right-of-way. The Greenway is defined as including two lanes of wheeled traffic on a paved path, a divider, and a separate walkway for pedestrians, with a shoulder on both sides. As the Executive Director stated, the Greenway trail proposal would require the removal of the tracks for it to be constructed because the corridor’s right of way is not wide enough for both the Greenway trail and the railroad tracks.
The railroad tracks, however, cannot be removed as long as there is a freight easement. The only way to remove the freight easement is to abandon it—either voluntarily by the owner or through adverse abandonment. The Surface Transportation Board, as I said, must approve any application to abandon it. So in the end, the Greenway trail requires the removal of the railroad tracks, and this cannot occur without the abandonment of the freight easement.
This, then is where we get into the motives of the various participants in this discussion that we’ve been hearing from. It’s confusing because not everyone has the same motives for wanting abandonment. The RTC staff favors the abandonment, as I understand it, because it will make it easier to build the rail trail along the corridor. Greenway supporters favor abandonment, obviously, because the Greenway trail can’t be built without it.
Roaring Camp opposes abandonment because of the fear that it will eliminate their opportunity to provide rail service—freight service and maybe even passenger service in the future on the line.
So the arguments for the benefits of abandonment from the RTC staff perspective are that they would make constructing segments of the rail trail easier by dealing with liability issues and by reducing environmental impacts and costs. And of course the supporters of rail service oppose abandonment because they see it as the first step to removing the tracks.
Greenway advocates, as seen in the definition of the trail itself, recognize and support the removal of the tracks so that a trail can be constructed. However, unfortunately, from my perspective Greenway advocates make a number of misleading arguments that only confuse the issue.
They argue that the RTC only wants to remove the freight easement because the cost of preparing the tracks for freight is expensive and it’s not about the kind of passenger service Roaring Camp provides. This is true but ignores the fact that by removing the tracks no train service will be possible.
Greenway advocates also argue that abandonment does not require removal of the tracks—this is probably, from my perspective, the most disingenuous argument since, while it is legally true, it doesn’t admit the fact that without abandonment there can be no Greenway.
Greenway advocates argue that even if the tracks are removed, they can be put back if funding for rail service becomes feasible. How likely is that, especially should the Greenway initiative pass?
Greenway advocates argue that railbanking requires that the rail corridor be preserved. This only means that the right-of-way can’t be sold off. With railbanking, the track can be ripped up.
The Greenway initiative has now qualified for the ballot and will be voted on in June. It’s related to the abandonment issue because the supporters of the initiative have made and will continue to make the argument that the initiative would not prevent rail service from returning to the corridor even if the Greenway trail is built. Is it realistic to think that public transit would ever return if the initiative passes, since it adopts the trail as county policy and all but eliminates references to rail in the county general plan?
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.
Based on all this, I do not support the adverse abandonment of freight easement. And if we could vote on it today, I would be voting no.
Finally, in a fundamental way, this whole debate, as some speakers have said to the commission, seems like an exercise in futility.
Among the over 6,000 emails I’ve received opposing abandonment was a letter from the San Lorenzo fire districts opposing abandonment based on the potential need of an operable rail line during an actual emergency like a devastating wildfire. There has also been email and testimony from private companies indicating that they would use the line to move their products if the line was in operation.
Given these, and the strong opposition from Roaring Camp, I think it is extremely doubtful that the STB would approve an adverse abandonment application.
The most important point to remember, from my perspective, is that the Greenway will require the removal of the tracks and that can only occur if the existing freight easement is abandoned.
If there is to be a solution it will be based on compromise and cooperation.
I urge us to move forward in that direction and I hope staff, as indicated by Commissioner McPherson, will take up the Roaring Camp offer to negotiate and see if it's possible to work out a mutually acceptable agreement.
Thank you very much.
See a video of Andy Schiffrin delivering his remarks during SCCRTC’s Feb. 3 meeting here.
The original transcript is viewable here.
Press coverage of the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail & Trail and the Coast Connect vision.