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Dispelling the Myths Around the Roaring Camp-RTC Debate

By Jayme Ackemann

Earlier this year, Roaring Camp launched an aggressive campaign to defend its right to operate freight on the Felton Branch Line that connects to the line owned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC).

The campaign came in response to RTC’s move to consider requesting the forced abandonment of freight operations, initially on the Felton line, and eventually requesting the abandonment of the Santa Cruz Branch Line.

Now one RTC Commissioner is suggesting a friendly coffee meeting will resolve the conflict. But we’ll get back to that.

Roaring Camp Doesn’t Operate Freight? Does it?

It doesn’t matter whether Roaring Camp actively operates freight over the line or not. But the answer to that question is, yes. Roaring Camp also holds the contract to operate freight service through Santa Cruz County, which includes the Felton Branch Line. But due to track and bridge repair questions, freight service is primarily operated out of Watsonville at present.

An abandonment would result in the loss of federal protection for Roaring Camp’s rights to operate trains in the corridor – tourist or freight.

The federal government extends protections to freight corridors so that operators can be assured of unimpeded passage without threat of additional liability. Roaring Camp has an easement to operate on the Felton Branch Line across property that is largely owned by the California State Park system. When the train emerges from tracks on state park property it crosses over land owned by the City of Santa Cruz before merging onto the Santa Cruz Branch Line, which is owned by RTC.

Federal freight protection means that none of these entities can unilaterally decide to remove the tracks, or change Roaring Camps’ easement to prevent operation. While relationships are good with these agencies today, things can change. The opposition to Rail-plus-Trail, spearheaded by Greenway, the bike and pedestrian trail advocacy organization previously led by Supervisor Manu Koenig, shows how quickly that can happen.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Roaring Camp to be cautious about taking RTC’s word that it will continue to enjoy unfettered access to the Boardwalk. While leadership at the transportation commission may presently support Roaring Camp’s continued rights, as we’ve seen with recent elections – leadership can change. 

It’s unlikely RTC is even in a position to make such assurances today. RTC only owns the tracks once they cross over Maple Street in Santa Cruz. Should feelings about the railroad change within the State Park system, Roaring Camp could find itself in an even more existential battle down the road.

Is Greenway Opposed to Rail?

Greenway denies it is opposed to long-term rail planning but its ballot language seeks to have the portions of the Santa Cruz County General Plan that deal with rail removed entirely. 

Its support for “railbanking” is another red herring. Railbanking removes the tracks.

Let’s follow this logic down the rabbit hole, shall we? To “preserve the corridor,” we are going to remove the tracks because there is not enough funding to complete the rail project today. This is a bit like building half a house, then tearing it down so you can find the money to finish construction. Once you tear out the tracks, the already expensive rail project gets a whole lot more expensive.

Greenway does not support rail. Don’t let them put any more lipstick on that pig.

So About That Coffee?

RTC’s Commissioners seem to be of the opinion that Roaring Camp and RTC’s executive team just need a little relationship-building to reach an agreement.

Commissioner Jacques Bertrand made the explicit suggestion that Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark and RTC Executive Director Guy Preston work out their differences over coffee.

Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad has operated in Santa Cruz County for more than 80 years. The Clark family, which has been involved with the local railroad business for generations, has worked alongside both current and past RTC administrations.

When asked about the Commissioner’s recommendation, Clark thoughtfully responded, “I prefer direct, plainspoken communication. So Commissioner Bertrand’s suggestion of a cup of coffee with the RTC executive director is my kind of thinking, though it may come as a surprise to some that we’ve already met together a few times, including a meeting held at Roaring Camp. We also stay in touch via text and email. I’m confident we’ll keep the lines of communication open as we try to hammer out a way forward.” 

The Big Trees & Pacific excursion locomotive | Photo contributed by Roaring Camp Railroads

According to Supervisor Bruce McPherson’s office, support for Roaring Camp has been significant. Since news broke regarding the RTC’s plans earlier this year supporters have sent more than 6,000 letters to RTC’s commissioners. If that’s a sign for Santa Cruz County’s overall support for rail, that’s good news for the Rail-plus-Trail supporters. 

The decision will come back to RTC’s board for consideration before a vote unless that coffee date can help Roaring Camp and RTC reach an agreement. Let’s hope it does.

Jayme Ackemann is a public affairs consultant and freelance writer. She has worked on major capital investments and water infrastructure construction projects in the Bay Area. Jayme is a resident of Ben Lomond.

Featured photo: Melani Clark, CEO at Roaring Camp Railroads
Photo contributed by Roaring Camp Railroads

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15 Thoughts to “Dispelling the Myths Around the Roaring Camp-RTC Debate”

  1. Bud Colligan

    Jayme Ackemann misrepresents Greenway’s positions in her clearly biased writing.

    1) The Regional Transportation Commission is responsible for planning and implementing rail, not the county. An objective source of information can be found in the county’s report on the Greenway Initiative, which was published March 2, 2022 and is available here: If you’re interested in the Greenway Initiative’s impact on land use, traffic, budgets, housing, economic development, etc, you can find the answers in the report. In general, the report says the Greenway Initiative is consistent with the county’s general plan and specific plans.

    2) Railbanking is a federal program used by hundreds of communities across the nation. The decision to remove any tracks is a separate decision of the RTC. Tracks have been unused now for over 4 years due to the 2017 winter storms. Now multiple bridges, including the Capitola Trestle, are “out of service.” The RTC does not have the estimated $60M to repair the tracks or an estimated $30M to $50M to replace the Capitola Trestle. Best case estimates are that the Capitola Trestle would be replaced in 20 years. So it looks like Roaring Camp will not have access to Watsonville for 25 years in ALL scenarios. As competent businesspeople, it looks like they will need a Plan B. Thus the talks with the RTC regarding various alternatives.

    1. Martin

      1) The COUNTY is involved as Greenway’s proposal to remove all references to rail in the COUNTY general plan will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the COUNTY to seek additional funding for rail investments in the future if successfully adopted by Santa Cruz County voters.

      2) While there may be limited examples of railbanked tracks being restored when they have not been removed, the Greenway plan seeks to remove the tracks. Don’t obfuscate.

      3) It’s bias if you don’t agree.

    2. I don’t understand why Greenway is so adamant about killing or delaying the Coast Rail Trail project! Please embrace this wonderful project and help us defeat the GW Initiative!

      The Branch Line is recognized by the federal government as an active rail line and the RTC has committed to doin all the required repairs to make it operational, including work on the bridges. Roaring Camp and readiness for use by emergency agencies rely on it being repaired ASAP.

      Railbanking will not be permitted here, neither will the RTC be permitted to remove any rail. If they did, the cost of ever bringing it back would be astronomical, impossible. Do the improvements today and it is within our means.

      The county report on the Greenway Initiative, completed internally, is terribly flawed and fails to address the ways in which Greenway would increase highway congestion and leave people stuck in the failed automobile-only world this county is stuck in.

      You are welcome to join our effort to provide safe and time-certain clean electric rail transit. Join the Chamber and the growing number of clubs that oppose the deceptive Greenway Initiative. Thanks!

    3. Crissa

      Bud Colligan misrepresents Greenway’s positions in his clearly biased writing.

      Greenway’s initiative removes all reference to rail from the county’s plans.

      But today there’s a plan, in front of the county RTC, to run a streetcar on the rails. Greenway’s plan would remove this.

      Bud Colligan also misrepresents that the county doesn’t have the money. Greenway’s plan would require the county to return millions of dollars in matched funding from state and federal sources as it abandons the rail plan.

    4. montagna_lunga

      Colligan uses repair costs as a red herring, the truth is that CalTrans has included Monterey -> Watsonville -> Santa Cruz in their 40 year rail plan since at least as early as 2018. The money chasers are desperate to ruin the suitability of the santa cruz line for future use that places State-funded and planned statewide transportation needs ahead of their opportunism. I would be embarrassed for the county if the nonstop Greenway assault upon the RTDs budget winds up as a “win” for the so-called entrepreneurs chasing the Santa Cruz Branch to a hoped-for ruin.

  2. Casita Jhones

    A minor correction – Greenway wants to remove the tracks, but railbanking can be done without removing the tracks. In all places where the tracks have been removed, the rail has never been restored, but there have been a handful of instances where railbanked tracks that were not removed have been reactivated.
    Salutations, Casita.

    1. Jack Brown

      Maryland’s Purple line is replacing removed tracks. Monterey is also putting tracks back down from Seaside to the Customs Plaza even though this was an abandoned track before the concept of railbanking existed when they built their rec trail that attracts over 2,000,000 annual visitors and is a major component of their $4 billion tourist industry.

      1. Jack, you might not realize this but the RTC is obliged to complete all repairs over the 32 mile Branch Rail Line. They are making progress but they need our support. Roaring Camp does, too, as they provide freight services to several companies in south county.

        Freight trains can carry one ton of freight nearly 500 miles while only using 1 gallon of fuel. Compared with over the road trucks, moving freight by rail reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 75% while also reducing road congestion and roadway wear and tear.

        Rail transit is even better. The TCAA found that our transit ridership would more than double with the addition of rail transit, so if we are serious about public transit we improve our Metro AND add smart, clean, electric rail like the coast futura that operated last October.

        By the way, the official Coastal Rail Trail is being built right now, the Greenway Initiative would kill it in its tracks. If you want a trail, tell all your friends to vote NO on the Initiative. Contact them if you’d like to donate to the cause or get a lawn sign.

      2. Crissa

        So there’s one instance out of thousands.

        We have a proposal to run a rail car in front of the RTC today. To railbank now is to pave over the beach and say we could have a beach in the future. It’s ridiculous.

  3. eric c hammer

    Now wait just a minute here. What I’ve learned San Lorenzo Valley over 50 years is when Santa Cruz wants to make a change (for the better good of the Community/Environment) someone is going to make a killing lining their own pockets. Follow the money trail. How may additional housing units will become available when the Historic Bridges and Rail Corridor land can be re-zoned. Santa Cruz will make statements like ” Its state mandated we increase housing availability for our ever-increasing population”. I Say get rid of UCSC, as once upon a time they were mandated to stay within their own small sand box. Next, they will say more water is needed (wait they already are saying just that, better yet, they lay claim to the water shed of the San Lorenzo Valley) We no longer have the resources to sustain the infrastructure needed. Just look at the horrific waste of resources on hwy 1 and river street. For those of you that think it was or is unexpected outcomes due to growth. Do your homework as it was made quite clear in the early 70’s, Santa Cruz could not support such increases in development without causing massive environmental degradation. Yes, my family has worked for generations on a bike path and better use for the rail corridor. One starts to see how history has changed, based on land grabbing by those with political power and money. Our community lost so many homes do to fire and lack of resources to contain it. Don’t touch the rail line that my great grandfather helped to build. We lost his house and much of his land, However out of the ashes we could see the historic value of our mountains and our treasures. The rail corridor is the interlink to all of it and all of us.

  4. Paul Gabriel

    TLDR. RTC committed to rail when they acquired the line and now wants to weasel out of that commitment.

    The RTC knew at the time they bought the line it was only rated for freight traffic, not passenger, and needed more money in repairs than they spent for the line. They have since allowed the condition to deteriorate so no rail traffic is currently allowed between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. In addition the Federal money used for that original purchase will have to be returned if rail is “abandoned” because that money was for a railroad.

  5. Santa Cruz locals want a rail trail. As a senior local resident, I would applaud a compromise where a walking/biking/light rail compromise could be reached to serve everyone.

  6. Julie Castro-Orozco

    Let’s make it a win win for all. walking/biking and light rail trail for all. Let’s reduce the HYW 1 congestion now! Who has a better option to reduce the congestion am Watsonville to Santa Cruz and San José , the pm congestion SC or SJO back to Watsonville? Our representative must be able to figure it out! If not they must be replaced.

  7. Measure D – Greenway is a bad idea for our community. Vote NO on Measure D!

    It is imperative that we continue to build the Coastal Rail Trail and pursue public
    transit solutions for our rail line. Many parts of the rail trail are already built or funded.

    The Measure D Greenway ballot initiative petition seeks to tear up the rail line while claiming to “preserve future rail options through railbanking”.

    In actuality, the initiative removes language in the County General Plan that provides for passenger rail study, rail maintenance, and preservation of the existing right-of-way.

    These are just a few of the passages that will be removed from our County General Plan and replaced with planning for bike trails only, what they call “Greenways”.

    DELETE “preserve and protect the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway” (owned by the Regional Transportation Commission),”

    DELETE “preserve and protect existing railroad right-of-way and existing rail facilities,”

    DELETE “identify land use policies which will support future passenger rail use,”

    DELETE “participate in planning and consider funding for fixed guideway/rail service in the Santa Cruz/Watsonville corridor,”

    DELETE “if initiated by the RTC or other agencies, participate in a Santa Cruz to Los Gatos rail study and an around the hill recreational and commuter or passenger rail service study.”

    What can we do?

    • We need to hold government accountable to protect our transportation systems.

    • We need to make sure our transportation taxes are used here, for our projects.

    • Don’t let special interests kill our long-term regional transportation plans.

    • Make sure ALL cities benefit from the rail corridor and not just Aptos and Capitola.

    • Protect our invaluable rail line which connects us to the rest of the USA!

    Our positions are based on careful consideration of feasibility and impact, with an eye to future-focused investments and the triple bottom line of equity, the environment, and the economy.

    The Greenway initiative is misleading. Warn your friends, VOTE NO on Measure D!

  8. frank rimicci

    I have to honestly say there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding the greenway initiative. The big question is why would a group that claims to promote the trail be willing to halt the current plan and construction and delay it for a decade while new plans and permits are obtained. And if the rail easements are lost, Who gets the property rights? Many other important questions remain so for this reason I must vote no on D.. Just share the line and keep building the trail.

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