The Measure D middle man: RTC lead Guy Preston must drive down two sets of tracks, neither without its perils

Guy Preston, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Regional Transportation Commission is the entity tasked with letting us move about Santa Cruz County in smarter and more efficient ways. The man leading the exploratory charge as the nonpartisan director of RTC staff has had the most difficult task of his professional life with both sides of the Measure D issue digging in deep with win-at-all-costs attitudes. But Guy Preston vows to block out the noise and keep plowing ahead with clear eyes, arming the RTC voting board with the best information he can provide. First he wants to arm voters.

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Guy Preston steps over the railroad tracks a stone’s throw from his home in Seabright and points up toward the redwood fence sitting atop a dirt embankment that climbs some 30 feet above him. Then he lets his civil-engineer mind do its mathematical gymnastics.

“So I’m going to put a 12-foot trail in here, where’s it going to go?” he says. “It’s really tight in here, so it’s going to be against a retaining wall that will need to be built and behind that fence which has encroached on our right of way. That building there will get clipped and then there are more buildings up ahead.”

Preston, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, is the man trying to get his arms around the complicated plan that will guide the future of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line corridor — and the county’s public transportation issues as a whole.

He is also, quite perplexedly, the man caught in the middle of the most contentious political battle anyone can remember in this small county. The grizzled Bay Area public transportation veteran has long witnessed the squabbling over the state’s on-again, off-again high-speed rail project and the debates that ensued with the plans for rail transit in Marin and Sonoma counties in the early 2000s.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says Preston, who took the job in 2018, coming from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, with 32 years in the transportation world.

As both sides of the Measure D issue have dug in deep on the politics, it is Preston’s job to dig in deeper on those rail corridor geometry equations, cost evaluations, legal precedents and any other empirical evidence he can find. That work might ideally be the fact-first information and analysis to guide decisions on tangled public policy questions.

Guy Preston, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission
Guy Preston leads a tour of the rail corridor in his Seabright neighborhood.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After the votes have been counted when balloting ends Tuesday, he must help guide the RTC on how to act upon that vote. The vote could favor either keeping the train tracks in place for future transportation use or removing the tracks in order to expedite a wider trail.

From Wednesday on, it will be his difficult task to steer the RTC forward — with a voting board that has recently split 6-6 on how to proceed — by interpreting the will of the people and choosing the most pragmatic paths to pursue. While Preston will be the conductor of this train, it is the RTC board that will act on its interpretation of the issues in making its vote.

Preston, 56 and a husband and father of four grown children, says he has become increasingly media-friendly because he doesn’t feel as though real information has gotten out to normal citizens who need to make an important decision on how to vote.

But he wants to make it abundantly clear that his job dictates complete neutrality: “I am not taking a position on this — I can be fired if I show any favor one way or the other,” he says. “But I think people need to know as much as they can about this and I’m happy to talk.”

Preston’s job is to steer down the middle of the tracks, but says he’s gotten dirty looks from deeply partisan onlookers wondering what his angle is — particularly as the issue of railbanking has become more charged.

They don’t know what to make of me. People have dug in so deep on this.

Pressed to name someone — anyone — steering down the middle on this issue, multiple local leaders offered Lookout only one: Preston.

He and a small staff of planners and engineers do the research and study around all transportation projects and must consider all practical options in helping Santa Cruz County move quickly forward to improve its long overdue and rapidly worsening transportation woes.

But it’s the RTC’s board of 12 commissioners — a member from each of the four cities in Santa Cruz County, all five members of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and three members appointed by the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District Board of Directors — who cast votes on the county’s, and the corridor’s, future.

It’s clear that Preston understands the thinking on both sides of the highly partisan issue. As the state leans into clean-energy public transportation options, light rail from one end of the county to the other could be an important possibility to retain. At the same time, the costs and physical feasibility of building a combo rail-and-trail in certain parts of the corridor make it easy for some to argue for a premium recreation trail.

With Measure D, Preston is a man of many “what ifs?” and “maybes” trying to hold nuanced court in a land of absolute black-and-white, yes-and-no answers. The uncertainties are everywhere up and down the heart of the corridor the Greenway plan would cover — the RTC is working on designs and environmental reviews for four segments, 9, 10, 11 and 12, from Seabright to Aptos Village — and his job is to envision two very different plans unfurling.

His role, though, is not to be a county resident, wondering what he’d like to use more. Preston is the project delivery man, obsessing over the complexities, big and small, that make this such a challenge, far beyond all the politics. He must deliver a “next " plan — after the dust settles from Tuesday’s vote.

Because he’s not afraid to share what he knows, and because both Preston and Lookout have a sense that not enough real information is getting out to hungry voters on this issue, we threw a bunch of questions at him. Here they are, with responses edited for clarity and brevity.

Guy Preston does some mathematical gymnastics along the Seabright corridor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Have you taken some heat, especially from those who question why you’d even consider the concept of railbanking?

Guy Preston: There have been personal attacks on me online, some of which were deleted because they were really awful, and not true, and could have gotten people in legal trouble for some of the things they alleged. I think they question what I’m doing. But my job isn’t to make the decision. My job is to deliver transportation projects and provide as many options as possible for the decision-makers and not box ourselves in.

Lookout: It’s a pretty good statement about how there’s validity on both sides of the tracks, but you can’t hear it through the noise.

Preston: No, you can’t hear it. There are times when (the pro-rail people) praise me for things like trying to repair the rail line, going after funding for the Pajaro River Bridge, repairing all the storm damage jobs. So they praise me at times, but then they scratch their heads and go, “Why does he keep bringing up railbanking?”

Guy Preston is helping vet an interim plan and an ultimate plan.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: You’re confusing folks by not picking a side.

Preston: I’m just leaving options open and trying not to box us in. I’m not trying to put up barriers for either side. I’m trying to tear down the barriers and saying, if there’s a way to do what somebody is asking me to do, I should answer them honestly, I shouldn’t take my own bias and try to say, “No, it can’t be done” when the answer is, “Well, maybe it can be done” or, “I think it could be done.” Now they might rather that I slammed the door shut on options, but that to me would not be doing my job. Especially with a 6-6 commission, my job is to leave the options open and to get good factual information out there so then they can make a decision.

Lookout: Do you think the political jostling has made it hard for you to get clear messaging out?

Preston: I really don’t want to get into their debate — it’s unfortunate. They take my words and they twist them or they cherry-pick information to try to make their case sound as good as possible. I don’t know if they just don’t understand the legalities and complexities of these issues because they are hard to understand.

Lookout: What does it really come down to?

Preston: The debate is really, if you tear out the tracks, will they ever come back? And (the No Way people) say, “Don’t allow them to tear out the tracks, don’t allow them to railbank.” Well, that’s not my job. My job is to tell the commissioners what their options are and then they can decide whether they want to remove the tracks. You don’t have to tear out the tracks to railbank. But you do make your property-rights issues a lot easier for rail or trail or both if you railbank. And I have an obligation to let my commission know that. I think they understand that.

The biggest challenges

Lookout: What are the biggest challenges you see to building the rail with trail?

Preston: Property rights. We will have to build to our right-of-way line in some places, and in some places neighbors encroached on our property. And even if they didn’t encroach, we’re gonna build potentially, like we saw in Seabright, we’re gonna build a wall right up to somebody’s building. You could say, well, that’s the property owners’ problem. But when you start to actually have to deal with a situation, it becomes more complicated; the politics get dirty.

Lookout: Where’s the trickiest situation to fit the rail and trail both?

The envisioned solution for Aptos Village.
(Via Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Preston: The section through Aptos Village is one of our most challenging sections because the rail was placed primarily in the center of the right of way, and there’s not enough room on either side. We experienced that in some of the earlier sections that we’re developing through Live Oak, and we’re going to move the rail over. But you can’t just jog it without any kind of tapering.

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That section through Aptos, the problem is it’s bridge after bridge after bridge after bridge, so to move the rail over a few feet means you’ve got to place this bridge a few feet over, the next bridge a few feet over, the subsequent bridge a few feet over and down the line. There’s that many bridges, and they’re in a row. So we decided that we’re going to have to acquire property to build on one side or the other. That’s an actual new right-of-way purchase. That’s a huge obstacle.

Is it impossible? No. Will it make the project take longer? It depends. If the property owner says, “Sure, I’ll just donate the land to you” then no, it won’t take any longer. If they say, “I’m not selling it to you over my dead body” and then we decide to use eminent domain and I can’t get the votes. Because I have to get RTC to vote for it and then I need to get the county, and that requires a two-thirds vote. In the end it may not be any easier to do than railbanking, who knows?

The current segments under study by the RTC.
(Via Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Lookout: So the conversation about how long a trail would take is really a location-based question?

Preston: Right. Are you talking about Segment 9? Are you talking about Segments 10, 11 or 12? Are you talking about the future segments between Rio Del Mar and Watsonville that we haven’t even started? It’s hard to say. If you define your project and you say, “OK, I’m going to do this” and then you start the process of dealing with that risk, it may or may not not slow it down at all. You can’t tell until you start.

How does a yes or no vote drive the timeline?

Lookout: Greenway asserts a yes vote will speed up the completion of a trail while No Way says that will halt the trail building process already underway. What’s true?

Preston: It depends. Both projects have risk, and it could take longer or could be quicker depending on how the risk is managed and the ultimate outcomes. The process of railbanking would be a risk and an issue on one side. We would need a determination from the (national) Surface Transportation Board that would allow the line to be railbanked in order to build the Greenway project. But if that doesn’t materialize, then that project isn’t feasible. It could materialize, and it could be quicker or it could take longer. That’s the thing that we can’t determine at this time.

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Lookout: Since it seems like the issue muddied most by politics, what does railbanking do exactly?

Preston: Railbanking preserves railroad corridors that would be otherwise subject to abandonment for future potential reactivation of rail service. Preserving the corridor means that all property rights as a continuous railroad corridor will remain completely intact and protected for future potential rail service.

a section of rail trail near La Selva Beach
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: You’ve mentioned that railbanking doesn’t have to involve removing the tracks and that it is beneficial to both plans. Can you explain each of those?

Preston: Yes, railbanking does not require that the tracks be removed or that even a trail be built. Railbanking would be beneficial to a passenger rail and trail project in that it would allow a trail to be constructed in any configuration, without the threat of a lawsuit or the need to acquire additional rights from property owners where RTC only owns an easement for rail purposes. Any claims by property owners, including those for expanding easements for rail with trail, would be directed to the federal government, which has a process for dealing with such claims.

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Lookout: Would the process of trying to railbank put a halt to the other work going on?

Preston: You could finish your EIRs [environmental impact reports]. Finish final design. You can apply for funding. We still have a couple of years to go on all our projects to do that work. You could probably do both concurrently so it may not slow things down at all. Depends how long it takes.

Lookout: If people vote down Measure D, what are the likely determining factors of how quickly and what a timeline would look like on continuing to build the trail as it’s being built right now?

Preston: Greenway only talks about the trail being built on the railbed between Lee Road in Watsonville and the San Lorenzo River bridge. So with the parts of the trail already built, or being built, on the Westside, there should be no effect at all. And between the limits of the bridge and Lee Road, there is no trail that’s fully funded and ready to go. Environmental studies have started on Segments 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Guy Preston does some mathematical gymnastics along the Seabright corridor.

Santa Cruz County RTC Director

Meet Guy Preston

Age: 56
Born/raised: Southern California
Years in the county: 8
Family: Married, with a wife and four grown children
Education: UC Berkeley — BS, civil engineering
Hobbies: Hiking, biking, yoga, scuba diving

Lookout: Sounds like the timeline and scope of what happens will be highly variable either way.

Preston: Yes, on one side it would depend on how fast you can railbank and first whether you can railbank at all. And whether your (trail-only) project can get funding and then anything else that could come up on that project could speed it up or slow it down.

And then on the other side, the trail being built adjacent to the rail line — it also has risks associated with it, including funding. It requires more funding than the other project. And so it would depend on its ability to get funding, but it would also depend on other risks associated that are unique to that project, like property rights issues, environmental impacts, the ability to mitigate for the environmental impacts, the ability to get permits. All projects have risks. And so there’s no way to determine which project could be done faster at this time.

The two-headed project plan

Lookout: Between those two project plans being vetted — an interim, which is patterned after what Greenway proposes, and an ultimate, which creates a rail-with-trail option — is one more ready to go than the other?

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Preston: We’re considering an interim trail — not quite the Greenway, but close. We’re considering the trail adjacent to the rail line. And if both are environmentally cleared, and we’re moving forward on both projects, both are on even footing except that they have their own risks. Maybe you’re successful at railbanking, maybe not. Maybe you’re successful in getting all the grants for the other project, maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re successful in getting all the permits, maybe you’re not. You don’t know until you try, and so it’s really determined at this time for anyone to distinctly say that one can be done faster than the other … I cannot reach that conclusion.

Lookout: The decision to scope out two projects simultaneously was made to give you more flexibility, right?

Preston: Yes, because there are so many unknowns. We can shift directions based on the management of risk, which is what this is all about. Even with this Greenway initiative on the (the ballot), I don’t know which way it’s gonna go. It could pass; it may not pass. But also I don’t know whether the commission is going to choose to follow it or not. And I don’t know that they may not change their mind over time. So this kind of leaves me with the maximum amount of options and neither project is necessarily slowed down.

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

The Roaring Camp question

Lookout: No Way Greenway says Measure D will hurt Roaring Camp’s business by cutting it off from the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. But with the unfixed repairs to the line, it’s not being used anyway, right?

Preston: They’re cut off from the main line now, so the fact we’re not able to fund the repairs really doesn’t have any effect on them whatsoever. The Greenway initiative doesn’t affect that section in front of the Boardwalk. But some of Roaring Camp’s argument [that it’s business is being hurt] is that over time it’ll be a slow death. Well, are they slowly dying right now? Because they’re cut off from the main line [the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line] now. I don’t know — you’d have to ask them.

They seem to be operating. How often do they need equipment? Is there a different way to get it to them or not? And that’s what we’ve tried to find out, but they aren’t interested in talking about that. They prefer the status quo. So it’s speculative. You can’t really give a definitive answer one way or the other. If no wins, it’s not going to create funding to suddenly connect the lines. Would we be able to find money eventually to repair the line? I haven’t seen a path to it yet. It’s quite expensive [as much $65 million, according to an RTC report]. We have limited resources. And when you’re getting grants, they want to see that the money is going to be used for something that’s going to be moving freight or moving people.

Metro bus headed to Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

How Highway 1 fits in

Lookout: Is the plan put in place by the previous Measure D in 2016 to add auxiliary lanes to Highway 1 and make other improvements going to help our traffic situation?

Preston: Is it going to completely relieve congestion? No. But it will make it a little bit better and it will make our systems work together better. And all of those improvements combined creates a system where there’s something for everybody.

Lookout: Can bus transit catch on in this county?

Preston: You hear a lot that people just don’t like the bus. They’d rather have a train. The bus is what we can afford right now. The train might be what we can afford at some point, too. And maybe we should preserve it, not railbank, and build the trail alongside of it. Maybe not. I don’t know. That’s not for me to decide. My job is to make sure that I keep options open, and give the commission an opportunity to decide what they want to do. Maybe we’ll be able to build the trail faster. Maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll find out. Maybe. Or we’ll just fight till the death and not get anything done.

My job is to make sure that I keep options open, and give the commission an opportunity to decide what they want to do. Maybe we’ll be able to build the trail faster. Maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll find out. Maybe. Or we’ll just fight till the death and not get anything done.