A Santa Cruz local enjoys his ride down the new trail rail path.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
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What’s railbanking, and why are Santa Cruz transit experts discussing it?

The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission’s meeting Feb. 3 will include an informational agenda item dealing with “railbanking” and “adverse abandonment” of the Felton Line. What do these terms mean and how will they affect the future of transit and trails in the county?

There’s a new word of the month at the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, and the word is “railbanking.”

Local transportation advocates have hotly debated the topic for several years. But they are doing so now more than ever, as the RTC’s discussions around the concept begin to get more serious. The word has surfaced in the rail-trail debate, and it’s likely to become an increasingly frequent — and contentious — part of the conversation due to a potential June ballot measure that would bake the concept into the county’s long-term plans for the now mostly unused 30-mile Santa Cruz Branch Line.

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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.”

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. In theory, the commission could lay down new tracks and introduce commuter rail service at some point.

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 more $50 million on repairs 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.”

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“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.”

The most common criticism of the railbanking approach is a concern that passenger rail transit won’t ever happen in the future unless the tracks are preserved now.

Part of the problem with “railbanking” is that the term is a little misleading, at least to the layperson. Railbanking isn’t at all about preserving the rail itself, in most instances. Rather, it’s about preserving the corridor — keeping it contiguous and stopping owners of adjoining properties from swooping in to claim the land as theirs.

Advocates from local anti-train, pro-trail organizations began pushing the idea of railbanking at least six years ago. For the past several years, the RTC staff’s response to the idea was consistent: that it did not have any record of a railbanked property being converted from a trail-only corridor back into an arrangement with rail and trail running alongside each other.

But after trawling the internet for a couple years, RTC Executive Director Guy Preston — who took over in December 2018 — says he did eventually find one example. So it has happened at least once.

There’s certainly not a lot of instances where it’s been done. It’s not none.

“There’s certainly not a lot of instances where it’s been done. It’s not none,” says Preston, who previously worked as regional delivery manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The suburban city of Denton, Texas, railbanked eight miles of rail corridor in 1993. Then, after the population grew, transportation planners built new commuter rails in nearby Dallas. And eventually, they added in an additional commuter train to connect with the railbanked corridor in Denton.

There won’t be any easy decisions in Santa Cruz County, Preston acknowledges. He says he knows that at least the idea of going from railbanking back to an active rail line isn’t totally without precedent.

“But I would say there is going to be a hurdle to doing so,” Preston says. “There’s a hurdle right now to building the passenger rail project, too, and that’s the funding. There’s a reason why abandoned lines become abandoned in the first place. Is it impossible? No. This is a very political community that likes to talk about collaboration and compromise. Is there a way to make it more [collaborative]? Some people are going to feel that’s never going to happen. If it’s possible to do both now, then you could argue that it’s possible to do both later. So if you set it up that way, maybe.”

The assumption from the RTC had long been that there is plenty of room to build both a state-of-the-art bike trail and a state-of-the-art train. That assumption could be changing.

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For years, the commission and its staff have been following its Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail (MBSST) Network Master Plan for guidance on the rail corridor trail.

The master plan — first adopted in 2013 — was a high-level planning document that evaluated the coastal rail corridor, although it did not include any engineering, Preston said. In broad strokes, the plan showed how the planners and civil engineers could build a multiuse trail alongside the train tracks.

Right now, the RTC is doing a deeper level of analysis, evaluating the rail trail plans between the San Lorenzo River Railroad Bridge near the Beach Boardwalk and Rio Del Mar. Preston said transportation planners and engineers have reported spotting a lot more constraints with the rail-and-trail proposal.

They aren’t saying that building the rail and trail together is impossible. But in a world of finite resources and limited transportation dollars, the RTC is clearly rethinking its calculus in the short term — especially because the feedback from the public is that people want a trail as quickly as possible.

The RTC’s findings should be public soon.

“It will be interesting what people think about it,” Preston said. “We’re here to serve the community, and what’s the best way of providing transportation options all around? But we also are graded on our ability to accomplish things too. People are frustrated when it takes a long time, and when it costs a lot. When there are controversial issues in projects, it generally takes longer.”