How Santa Cruz’s rail-trail debate created a standoff with Roaring Camp
A Feb. 3 meeting of the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission is likely to be heated. Why? Commissioners are slated to discuss foreclosing the Felton line for freight trains — which the line hasn’t been used for in years — as a way of moving a rail-trail plan forward. But the owners of the line, Roaring Camp Railroads, are against this idea and are rallying supporters to stop it.
The debate over how to use a coastal rail corridor, rail trail in popular parlance, has long been one of the more confusing and hotly contested topics in Santa Cruz County.
But a new battle in the war over the rail trail has ventured into territory more obscure than ever.
Locals aren’t fighting so much over the future of passenger rail transit or even the trail. Instead, they have taken to social media to squabble about how arcane federal laws that regulate freight pertain to a 21st-century transportation landscape.
In this latest scuffle, Melani Clark, president of Roaring Camp Railroads, is sounding the alarm about possible action taken by the county’s most powerful transportation authority. She says she feels “a sense of betrayal” at the hands of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation. And she’s generated a lot of public support, getting thousands of messages delivered to RTC commissioners over the past couple of weeks.
At its Feb. 3 meeting, the RTC will hear a presentation regarding “adverse abandonment” of Roaring Camp’s Felton line. Though formal action, if it happens at all, is likely months in the future, the move could give the commission more flexibility in how it builds a brand-new trail along an adjacent proposed local rail corridor that runs along the coast — part of the long-discussed rail-trail project.
A decade ago, the RTC purchased the coastal rail corridor with the intention of introducing a commuter passenger train and a bike-and-pedestrian path running alongside it. But in recent years, discussions have reached a fever pitch in hotly debated fights about whether the train is even feasible and about whether to ditch the train and build a trail only.
Now, the RTC is increasingly evaluating all its options. The current fracas is over what’s called an “adverse abandonment” of the approximately eight-mile Felton line. The action would essentially make it easier to remove portions of the tracks along the 30-plus-mile coastal railroad, known as the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line — an option for the corridor that’s beginning to look more reasonable to the RTC.
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.
The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission’s meeting Feb. 3 will include an informational agenda item dealing...
“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, Executive Director Guy Preston says 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.
The issue is on the RTC agenda as an “informational” item, meaning that the commission will hear a report, but it isn’t expected to take significant action for at least another month, possibly much longer.
Roaring Camp’s Clark said the RTC’s efforts threaten her business, which is best known for running tourist trains from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Felton and back. Specifically, she says, the move would prevent Roaring Camp — which took over rights to the freight line last year — from ever running freight on the Felton line. She blames 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.
Roaring Camp did not respond to follow-up questions by deadline about how many requests for freight it has had or what kinds of freight customers it could serve.
Clark also worries that the RTC’s move could even prevent Roaring Camp from running its main business.
It’s incredibly discouraging to our hardworking staff to have their future livelihood threatened.
“It’s incredibly discouraging to our hardworking staff to have their future livelihood threatened,” Clark said in an email to Lookout, sent via Roaring Camp spokesperson Jeanette Guire. (Guire said Clark was not available for a phone interview. Clark did answer Lookout’s initial questions, via emailed statements — with Guire serving as a facilitator.)
Preston says the RTC isn’t trying to hurt Roaring Camp’s business at all.
The RTC director says 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 extending well into the future, to protect its access to the Boardwalk.
Preston said the offer was made before the abandonment talks started and that Roaring Camp never sat down at the table to discuss the particulars of that agreement or how long it would last.
We are in full support of them continuing that service.
“We are in full support of them continuing that service,” he said.
A Roaring Camp spokesman did not respond to Lookout for comment about such talks.
Still, Roaring Camp has launched a campaign to get the RTC to reverse course, and it’s picking up steam. Santa Cruz City Councilmember Sandy Brown sits on the RTC, and she said at a Tuesday council meeting that she’s received nearly 3,000 messages in support of Roaring Camp.
Tensions around the discussion of what to do with the rail corridor might feel like they’re reaching an all-time high.
Members of the anti-train, pro-trail group Greenway and its supporters have submitted some 16,000 signatures for a ballot measure that would move away from plans for rail transit. County officials have until Jan. 31 to verify the signatures — which supporters say is the highest number ever gathered for a local initiative.
But eyes have already begun to shift to this standoff between the RTC and Roaring Camp.
This new chapter in the story has echoes that might sound familiar to anyone who has followed the issue. There are the hurt feelings, the concerns about the long-term future of transportation, an organization willing to put its reputation on the line, a dizzying regulatory framework, and last but not least, a personal beef with countywide implications.
At this point, the only discussion of potential adverse abandonment has been in a Jan. 13 closed session. That’s when the commission voted 10-2 to put two items on its Feb. 3 agenda to discuss the matter in more depth — one in closed session and another as a public hearing. A staff report on the situation came out Thursday.
To be clear, the current plans of record, approved by the RTC years ago, include those for a new trail alongside the rail line and for passenger transit running on the rail corridor. Still, the RTC doesn’t know how it would pay for the improvements, new infrastructure or daily passenger service, for that matter.
Our takeaway from recent reports and discussion is that Preston is signaling a possible pivot in how the county plans for a new trail along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, as the commission and its staff evaluate their options.
What’s “freight” got to do with it?
Moving freight in the county might seem like an arcane topic, but understanding the context of it helps us understand this current hot-button issue.
The coastal corridor is technically a freight line, with a contract owned by Minnesota-based Progressive Rail.
Under that contract, the RTC is supposed to make certain repairs to the rail line. But several years of bad storms put the RTC behind on those repairs, which are now estimated to cost $50-65 million, an amount that exceeds the money allocated for rail improvements in a 2016 transportation sales tax measure. Adding to the complications, Progressive Rail signaled in 2020 an intention to terminate the freight agreement, which the company said was getting to be too onerous, and to abandon the rail line.
The contract is still in Progressive Rail’s name, but Roaring Camp stepped in as a subcontractor in 2021 for Progressive and began to manage an unknown number of freight customers heading out of the county from Watsonville. But because of damage to the line, there still isn’t any freight service north of Lee Road in Watsonville, and the vast majority of the county is inaccessible by rail.
That has put the RTC in a bit of a bind, Preston said.
“We’re in this situation where there’s no freight on the line,” Preston explained. “But we’re required to maintain it for heavy freight. So we’re trying to figure out how best to preserve the corridor, considering we want to build a trail on it. We don’t have freight on it. We’re interested in commuter rail on it. We don’t have the funding right now. And so we’re kind of stuck. I don’t want to get ahead of the commission, because the commission has not taken any action or made any recommendation.”
If Progressive Rail renews its effort to abandon the corridor, that would likely give the RTC an easier opening to railbank. In the event it doesn’t and it is unable to reach an agreement with Roaring Camp, the RTC is considering forcing the abandonment. Even with abandonment, Roaring Camp could oppose the action. If it did so, the feds could side with Roaring Camp — regardless of how likely it is that freight will ever return.
Abandonment would leave the Felton line stranded with no possibility for freight. Even though the Felton line hasn’t run any freight cars in years, it’s still a federally recognized freight corridor, one that would be left stranded if the Santa Cruz line were abandoned. It would no longer be connected to the state rail system. That isn’t generally something the federal government likes to see, says Preston.
Bud Colligan, board member for the local pro-trail and anti-train group Greenway, says the RTC would be wise to move ahead with railbanking instead of making improvements to the line. But Greenway is staying out of the public tête-à-tête between Clark and Preston.
“We are not involved in this fight,” Colligan said via email.
Local train supporter Kyle Kelley, on the other hand, says railbanking would be bad for the county. He says the RTC should stop pressuring Roaring Camp and look for the money to make the repairs to the rail line.
Kelley, like other passenger rail enthusiasts, says railbanking is an idea put into the county’s popular imagination by Greenway and other opponents of the local rail option, and that these other activists have no intention of ever bringing in a commuter train. Despite Preston’s assurances, members of groups such as Coast Connect and Friends of the Rail and Trail are concerned. They worry that if the RTC rips up the tracks now, they will never come back.
The Felton company has other defenders as well. They include California state Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), who wants to make sure that no one messes with Roaring Camp.
“It’s hard to imagine that every effort wouldn’t be made to help and preserve an iconic local business that brings thousands of visitors to Santa Cruz County each year,” Laird said in an email to Lookout. “The Roaring Camp Railway is a strong part of our local economy and our history.”
Many Roaring Camp supporters are taking a variety of future opportunities into account.
In a letter this week to the RTC, seven San Lorenzo Valley fire leaders urged officials not to abandon the Felton line because they argue that freight rail could be used to help fight fires someday.
Clark, of Roaring Camp, said she is especially peeved because, before the RTC purchased the coastal corridor, her family’s company had first right of refusal. She said the RTC encouraged Roaring Camp not to purchase the line, so that the RTC could use state money to do so instead — a process that began in 2010 and took two years to complete.
She said the RTC assured Roaring Camp that the commission would take good care of the property and preserve the rail line in perpetuity.
“We were told this was a valuable asset to the community as the last clear corridor that ran through the county,” Clark said in her statement to Lookout, “and it had great potential as a transportation solution in the county.”