NoMyGod Here We Go... On Measure D
Exposing Measure D, but really.... this wasn't allowed to be published elsewhere, so here it is now for you, Guerrilla-style...
By Jeanette Prather
Introduction & Measure D
In light of the upcoming election on June 7, I want to help local residents unpack the railbanking discussion and examine the Greenway ballot initiative (Measure D). As stated in Section 3 of the County of Santa Cruz’s Full Text on Measure D (available online at VotesCount.us), enacting the initiative would amend the County General Plan and Local Coastal Program in support of developing an “interim design.”
That design would involve railbanking the corridor between the San Lorenzo Bridge (Santa Cruz) and Lee Road (Watsonville) for a multi-use greenway in favor of a variety of transportation modes, including commuting and recreation – walking, running, bike rides and other mobility devices. It would also prioritize the use of existing trestles and railbed for said greenway, and preserve a portion of the rail tracks in that area for the current freight service in Watsonville, existing Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway recreational service, and for a future Watsonville/Pajaro Junction station, according to the County’s Full Text on Measure D.
“A ‘yes’ vote is a vote to change the County’s General Plan Circulation Element to add language that supports the development of an interim multi-use trail in the rail corridor, which, if constructed as proposed, would require removal of the existing tracks,” wrote Jason M. Heath, County Counsel, and Ruby Márquez, Chief Assistant County Counsel in an article titled “Impartial Analysis of Measure D” from VotesCount.us. “It is also a vote to change the General Plan Circulation Element to reduce or eliminate language that relates to freight and passenger rail services.
“A ‘no’ vote is a vote to keep the language in the County’s General Plan Circulation Element the same as it is now and not make any changes to it.”
There are currently two options presented by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Committee (RTC); an “interim design” that would require the railbanking of said corridor, essentially pulling up the tracks in that area for a larger greenway transportation trail, and an “ultimate design” that would lay down a narrower greenway trail right next to the existing tracks. In the end, the final decision will be determined by a majority vote from the RTC’s 12-person team, according to SCCRTC.org.
“Measure D is a ½-cent sales tax for Santa Cruz County to fund transportation needs over a 30-year period,” wrote the RTC on their FAQ web page about Measure D. According to the FAQ, Measure D contains five categories of projects including street/bicycle/pedestrian transportation, the highway corridors, transit/paratransit vehicles, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail and the Rail Corridor.
How Does Railbanking Fit-in?
“Railbanking is a method by which freight rail lines proposed for abandonment can be preserved for future freight rail use through interim conversion to trail use and other uses,” wrote the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) in an October 2021 document published by the RTC and titled, “Fact Sheet and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – Railbanking on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line.”
According to RailsToTrails.org, “Railbanking takes place during a rail corridor abandonment process. Official negotiations with a railroad begin after the railroad submits an initial notification to abandon a line (similar to a letter of intent to abandon) to the Surface Transportation Board (STB). Negotiations end with either railbanking or line abandonment.”
“If the no [on Measure D] side was honest, they would be ok with a measure on the ballot that would increase a half-cent sales tax to generate the funds that they need,” said Bud Colligan, part of the steering committee for Greenway Santa Cruz. “Diverse scarce funds were coming from para and metro, but now the overruns and escalating costs alone for the four segments of railroad is $125 million more than the greenway trail.”
“In order to build the trail – the RTC has a few sections near the harbor and Aptos due to easement issues – they’ll ask for an abandonment of the rail line from the STB, which releases the STB’s control of the rail line,” said Melani Clark, CEO of Roaring Camp Railroads. “Then, it would be turned over into a trail line not under federal jurisdiction.”
The railbanking line in question, is the entire 32-mile span of railroad from Watsonville to Davenport. Although the entire line would not directly affect Roaring Camp’s beach train, Clark explained that “if the RTC strips us of our federal protection by abandoning our line, then we’re really under their control down to the Boardwalk. It also exposes our rail line to an eminent rail line.”
According to Colligan, Roaring Camp also owns a portion of rail track in Watsonville where they store a couple of locomotives that perform short-line freight hauling. “They want those tracks open so that they can move a locomotive to Roaring Camp if needs be,” said Colligan.
This leads us to the current controversy of, “to railbank or not to railbank,” coming from both sides of the track.
The Railbanking Discussion
According to a high-ranking deputy at the STB in Washington D.C., who for professional reasons requested to remain anonymous, the STB may give permission to abandon a line and it removes their authority over said line, converts it into unregulated land that may or may not be owned by the railroad in a situation where the land only has an easement. Which, according to Clark, is the situation with the RTC in mid-segments of the railroad throughout Santa Cruz.
“New rules are adopted that require the parties jointly to notify the Board [STB] when an interim trail use/railbanking agreement has been reached,” wrote a rule from May 2012 on the Federal Register’s Daily Journal of the United States Government about amendments to the National Trails System Act (Trails Act) of 1983. “The new rules also require parties to ask the Board to vacate a trail condition and issue a replacement trail condition covering the portion of right-of-way (ROW) subject to the trail use agreement if their trail use agreement covers only part of the right-of-way. In addition, the final rules clarify that a new party who assumes responsibility for a recreational trail must acknowledge that the interim trail use is subject to future reactivation of the railroad line.”
The anonymous STB deputy confirmed that the parties involved in the railbanking process will need to come to a pathway of mutual interest to make sure that the railroad corridors aren’t lost forever, and that they’re used for recreational use. He also confirmed that the topics are usually very controversial because more often than not, railroads do not resurrect after the line has been railbanked.
“Railbanking is not the right solution if you want rail in this county in the future,” said Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark. “It’ll kill rail and not be affordable in the future if this is done. It’ll be much more expensive to pull up the tracks and try to re-install them in the future.”
The STB deputy mentioned doing a 20-year lookback at the railbanking process near the early- to mid-2000s and they found not a lot of railroads came back. They remain neutral as an entity, he said, but if the statute of negotiations and requirements are met, they proceed with railbanking.
“The RTC is not trying to remove tracks out from under Roaring Camp, it’s just about rebuilding the tracks to carry freight rail,” said Santa Cruz County First District Supervisor Manu Koenig. “We may not be able to build any trail unless we railbank.”
“It’s really all about the building of a trail, which shouldn’t be that controversial but there are a lot of people who want to hold on to a railroad,” said Colligan. “It will take $50 to $60 million of public money for the railroad to return to the tracks in a workable state, and that’s not including the Capitola trestle, which would cost another approximately $30 million.”
In the end, it comes down to money. Thirty percent of the funds from the already passed 2016’s Measure D Amendment One statement, will go to neighborhood projects, with 25% going to highway corridors, 20% going to transit for seniors and people with disabilities, 17% for active transportation and 8% allocated to the rail corridor. “If the Regional Transportation Commission determines that the best use of the corridor is an option other than rail transit, funds may be utilized for other transportation improvements along and near the corridor,” wrote the document.
According to Koenig, the RTC is expected to come to a decision in June when applications for project grants are due. “The issue isn’t going away because we’re realizing that we really will have to choose between rail and trail,” he said. “The Westside was the easiest section to build, the rest of the corridor is not that easy.”
Another big problem with coexisting a rail and trail, according to Colligan, is the lay of the land. “When everything is said and done, after spending twice as much for the trail, you’ll get a trail that splits neighborhoods (because by law we need to separate trail and rail with a fence) and the trail detours for five miles on unsafe streets, especially in Capitola,” he said.
Clark, who has been vocal about her support of both a rail and a trail coexisting, mentioned the example of rail and trail happening simultaneously on the West Side. “There are a lot of people this affects, and the solution would be to have the two coexist,” she said.
In fact, everyone is affected by Measure D. Whether you are for or against Measure D, the outcome will change the landscape of Santa Cruz County, literally. Showing up to the ballot informed will be the best tool you can arm yourself with for the duration of the next 30 years.