A section of Santa Cruz County rail line
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Freight abandonment discussion on Felton line stirs passions at RTC; kibosh put on pro-rail ballot measure

The Regional Transportation Commission on Thursday heard hours of staff reports and public comments regarding the possible closure of the Felton line to freight in order to save up to $65 million in repair costs. No action was taken, but RTC staff said they would continue working with the line’s owner, Roaring Camp, on a solution to the issue.

An often-passionate discussion regarding the possibility of closing both the Santa Cruz and Felton rail lines to freight elicited hours of comments at Thursday’s Regional Transportation Commission meeting — but no other concrete step.

Executive Director Guy Preston said the RTC would continue working with Roaring Camp to ensure its popular tourist train is able to remain viable with or without an additional freight business. There has been no freight on either line north of Watsonville since 2017, and the commission staff has said the cost of repairing the Santa Cruz line for the heavy trains — as much as $65 million — is cost-prohibitive.

There has been no freight on either line north of Watsonville since 2017, and the commission staff has said the cost of repairing the Santa Cruz line for the heavy trains — as much as $65 million — is cost-prohibitive.

“I think the commission listened carefully and understands the concerns of both Roaring Camp and the RTC and I believe — without a vote directing me to — there’s a desire and a willingness to open up discussions again,” he said, regarding what he felt would happen next.

Officials from Roaring Camp — which owns the approximately eight-mile-long Big Trees & Pacific Railway that goes between the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Felton — have said such a move would threaten the entire operation.

At the meeting, Rosemary Sarka, a member of the railway’s board of directors, said closing the lines to freight would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Roaring Camp to move its equipment from Watsonville. This includes several locomotives, which weigh 126 tons each.

“If we don’t get a chance to replenish equipment, the company will die,” she said.

Sarka also said the removal would strip it of protections related to it being a federally recognized freight corridor, which also concerns Roaring Camp. Without this, she said, “we are at the mercy of whatever agreement that we can get …and that is obviously not sufficient.”

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Though not up for a vote, several commissioners said they would have voted against the idea, some said they would like more information, but most did not weigh in one way or the other.

Roaring Camp President Melani Clark, following the meeting, said she found the partial public support a positive sign.

“[The commission] seemed more open and sympathetic to the impact it would have on Roaring Camp and want to have a deeper discussion on how it can be resolved,” she said. “We need people to be open to what solutions are possible.”

Counter-measure to Greenway dies for lack of support

A second controversial topic, on whether to put a pro-rail ballot measure on the June ballot to counter the recently certified Greenway initiative, died for lack of support. The initiative would have asked voters to choose whether or not a commuter-rail-and-trail combination is the preferred action for the mostly unused coastal rail line.

However, a report prepared by RTC staff stated it was unclear whether the commission would even have the legal authority to place its own initiative on the ballot.

Commissioner Mike Rotkin championed the issue with support from Chair Sandy Brown and Commissioner Eduardo Montesino. Brown and Montesino also serve on the city councils of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, respectively.

The three commissioners ultimately chose not to move forward on the opposing ballot measure. The idea, as Rotkin put it, would’ve been to provide in tandem with the Greenway measure “a clear litmus test” for those who support rail first and those who support trail first.

As written, Rotkin said, the Greenway initiative doesn’t clearly spell out the challenge of re-activating the rail lines once they have been banked. But with legal questions, a cost of $500,000 to $1 million and the likelihood of another split vote led its supporters to kill it.

“It might only confuse voters further,” reasoned Commissioner Bruce McPherson, whose lack of support for the countermeasure finally ended the nearly six-hour meeting. McPherson also serves on the county Board of Supervisors.

Greenway, if adopted, would change the county’s General Plan away from its freight and commuter rail focus and toward a process called “railbanking.” This would allow for the possible removal of rails — and the development of a trail — with the idea it could potentially be replaced later if a rail plan re-renters the picture. As is the case with many issues surrounding transportation, the idea of railbanking is itself controversial.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to study that measure, with a report due next month. At that point, the board would have two options: adopt the initiative language without a countywide vote or add it to the June ballot.

Railbanking, freight and ‘adverse abandonment’

The issue that sparked the most passionate debate, however, dealt with discussion regarding the potential of “adverse abandonment” of the line owned by Roaring Camp.

A decade ago, the RTC purchased a coastal rail line with the intention of introducing a commuter passenger train and a bike-and-pedestrian path running alongside it. Part of the intertwining controversies about the rail-trail issue involves whether this is even feasible — and passage of the Greenway initiative would likely move the county toward ditching the train and building a trail only.

Though the RTC as a whole has not expressed any opposition or support of the Greenway initiative — and given the split feeling regarding a counter-initiative, it seems unlikely to do so — the forced abandonment of the Felton line to freight use relies on a common theme of “railbanking.”

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According to a recent staff report on the issue, its use of “railbanking” would allow “a commuter rail and a trail [to be] prioritized over freight improvements,” a potentially huge cost savings of as much as $65 million, according to the RTC. This savings, however, does not include any — yet unknown — costs of preparing the rails for a commuter rail and trail.

Opponents to this claim say that once rails are removed, it is very unlikely that they would ever be replaced — a claim that does have some historical merit.

“RTC could leave the rails in place, reconfigure the rail for rail and trail, and continue planning for future passenger rail service,” the report states. “RTC could choose to continue some freight service on the line while the line is railbanked, but it would not be required to do so.”

To do that, Preston has said the RTC might have to apply with the federal government for abandonment, not only of the Santa Cruz line, but also of the Felton line.

The reason for this is a practical one: Since the Felton line’s only other connection is to the Santa Cruz one, it would be cut off from receiving freight if that use was prohibited on points south. Preston said the federal government generally dislikes this type of isolation and would be unlikely to approve a move without both lines foreclosed to freight.

But Roaring Camp officials say the RTC’s efforts threaten the business. In addition to stopping freight service, railway officials say the abandonment would remove federal protection of the line, potentially threatening the tourist train between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Felton.

Clark has previously blamed the RTC for Roaring Camp’s inability to run freight cars since February 2017, due to storm damage to the Santa Cruz line between Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

Following the meeting, she said the company has received inquiries regarding freight on the Santa Cruz line. She declined to give any figures, however, saying those potential customers have said they might face pushback from those advocating a trail-only on the Santa Cruz line.

Preston says the RTC isn’t trying to hurt Roaring Camp’s business at all.

The RTC director has said he hadn’t been told by Roaring Camp that it wanted to consider running freight trains between Watsonville and Felton until this past March, when the company sent the commission a letter after hearing that the RTC was considering abandonment options.

The use of the line for freight rail is a hypothetical that would be a long way off anyway. Many repairs would be needed along the Santa Cruz line, starting in the south in Aptos, before a freight train could even make it to Capitola, let alone to Felton.

As for the tourist train, the RTC says it has offered Roaring Camp a long-term agreement to protect its access to the Boardwalk. In addition, Preston said at the meeting that the RTC is open to expanding the tourist train to Davenport as well as move any equipment Roaring Camp has in Watsonville north by truck.

However, Preston said Roaring Camp officials have largely declined to talk about an agreement.

“Those negotiations did not go very far and Roaring Camp indicated they prefer the status quo over any attempt to railbank the Santa Cruz Branch Line,” he said during the meeting.

Clark, however, said one of the big concerns is that a freight-abandonment of the line could open Roaring Camp up to eminent domain lawsuits. Additionally, regardless of how well-intentioned the current RTC is regarding protecting the tourist train, she said, it would not be able to guarantee the actions of a future commission.

Finally, she said moving locomotives by truck — Roaring Camp’s weigh 126 tons each — is expensive, time-consuming and, given the weight limit and height restrictions on the route, potentially impossible anyhow.

“There’s a reason you don’t see trains on the highway,” she said.

There’s a reason you don’t see trains on the highway.

High community interest

Following a report from Preston, the commission heard more than two dozen public comments — against the forced abandonment of the Felton Line by a 5-to-1 margin — to accompany the more than 6,000 online comments Brown said the RTC had received on the issue.

Part of the intense interest appeared to stem from inaccurate information put out by Roaring Camp itself on its website and linked in its various press releases. A significant number of the written and verbal comments, Brown noted, urged the commission to vote against abandonment, though such a vote was not under discussion.

On its website, the camp claimed that: “In a dastardly move and behind closed doors the Regional Transportation Commission will be voting on Forced Abandonment of the Felton to Santa Cruz line on the agenda for 2/3/22.”

In fact, though the commission discussed the issue as a closed item last month — citing anticipated litigation as the reason — it voted 10-2 on Jan. 13 to have it discussed publicly during the Thursday meeting. Additionally, staff members presented the “adverse abandonment” issue as an informational item, and the commission did not take any formal action.

Asked about this disconnect, Clark said the posting was put up following the Jan. 13 meeting but before the agenda for the Thursday meeting was posted. During that period, she said, it was unclear what action the RTC would be taking.