Roaring Camp's beach train at the Boardwalk.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Santa Cruz City Council urges rejection of plans to stop freight service in county

Regional Transportation Commission officials have floated an idea to foreclose freight on the Santa Cruz and Felton lines to potentially make commuter rail more financially viable. Roaring Camp, however, says the RTC has promised to keep the lines open for freight, and not doing so could hurt its business. Though it would have no formal impact, the Santa Cruz City Council sided with Roaring Camp Tuesday.

[Updated 6:15 p.m.] The Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to formally state it was opposed any move that would remove the possibility of freight on the Santa Cruz and Felton rail lines.

Though the vote has no impact on what the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission ultimately decides to do, Councilmember Sandy Brown said prior to the meeting that it’s still important for the city council to clearly state its opinion on the matter.

The council also agreed to send a letter to the Watsonville City Council asking them to make a similar motion.

The RTC owns the 30-mile Santa Cruz Branch Line, which stretches from Davenport to Watsonville, while Roaring Camp Railroads owns the 8-mile rail from Santa Cruz to Felton.

“You know, we want to put it on record that we as a body do want to support the rail trail,” said Brown, who also serves as the RTC chair. “Each kind of step that we take can create opportunities and/or obstacles to achieving the bigger-picture goal. ... It would be good for all of us to hear a little bit more.”

Complicating matters is the concept of “railbanking,” which RTC staff has said would be one way to make longstanding plans of a commuter rail and trail combo — the rail trail — financially viable. It says the cost of repairing the line for heavy freight is as much as $65 million, money the transportation authority does not have.

In short, railbanking is a way of preserving an abandoned rail corridor while allowing transportation officials to actually remove the train tracks.

But the corridor has to be abandoned first. That can happen when the freight operator determines that the corridor isn’t financially viable and applies for “abandonment” with the federal government. Or another group, like the RTC, can force the issue by pursuing what’s called an “adverse abandonment.”

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If the abandonment is successful, a joint-powers authority — like the RTC — can apply with the federal government to “bank” the rail corridor. The RTC could then get cracking on trail construction, after physically removing the tracks — and “banking” the possibility of installing new tracks sometime in the future. (Opponents of this say that once tracks are removed, they almost never come back.)

In the short term, railbanking would cure various engineering headaches. It would be easier to design a bike and pedestrian trail if there are no tracks to work around. Importantly, it also lets Santa Cruz County out of an obligation to spend the millions on repairs needed to make the current tracks suitable for heavy freight.

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.”

But because the Felton line’s only connection is to the Santa Cruz one, both would likely have to be foreclosed to rail, as the federal government dislikes stranded lines.

Roaring Camp — which has the franchise for freight on the Santa Cruz line — opposes this, saying the RTC has promised to keep the line open for business. Though she declined to give any details, president Melani Clark has said numerous potential customers want to run freight north of Watsonville, the current terminus of the line.

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Clark and Roaring Camp have also created a public relations and social media campaign that claims that closing down the possibility of freight could be fatal to the overall business and put the beloved tourist train in jeopardy.

At the RTC meeting last week, potentially goaded on by inaccurate information from Roaring Camp that a decision was imminent, around 6,000 people wrote online comments and more than two dozen people spoke — all overwhelmingly against the adverse abandonment idea. The item, however, was labeled as “informational” and the commission took no vote.

At that meeting, RTC Executive Director Guy Preston said he would continue to work with Clark and Roaring Camp to address its concerns and work toward the long-term viability of the tourist train.

There has been no freight on either of the rail lines north of Watsonville since 2017, and it has not seen major freight since the 2010 closure of the Cemex plant in Davenport.

Preston told Lookout Monday that, due to the complexity of the issue and the community concern, he felt it would be beneficial to address the council directly.

“This is an issue to see if, if there’s not freight on the line, whether there would be an option to no longer have the requirement to provide freight service,” he said. “Because it really is an obligation right now.”

All 10 public speakers at the council meeting Tuesday opposed the adverse abandonment of the Felton line, much for the same reasons given by the council itself. That is, that keeping things as they are was the best chance for keeping plans for a long-planned commuter rail and trail combo alive — reasoning opposite that of the RTC staff.

Other reasons included supporting Roaring Camp’s viability as a business and the potential use of rail to fight wildfires.

Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson said during the meeting that foreclosing the rail to freight now could tie the city’s hands.

“Shutting the door now will shut the door for opportunities in the future,” she said. “Especially for prevention of negative impacts of climate change and fires.”

And Councilmember Justin Cummings, also at the meeting, said that recent years have seen progress in developing rail and trail, and it should not be given up on.

“Consistently we’re seeing the efforts over time are leading to us making rail and trail a reality,” he said. “We as a board need to do what we can to keep this reality alive.”

Grace Stetson contributed to this report.