By Jayme Ackemann
In January, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that thanks to surplus budget revenues and a massive federal infrastructure investment package our state would make more than $2 billion in funding available for rail and transportation projects.
This seems like a less-than-ideal time for Santa Cruz County’s Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) to consider abandoning some of the rail corridors that could potentially benefit from those infrastructure investment dollars.
Stated simply, Santa Cruz County’s RTC wants to walk away from the millions that are available for state rail projects, and pay more than $14 million in Prop 116 funding BACK to the state for money used to purchase the rail corridor that they are now hoping to abandon.
On February 3, the RTC will consider whether to ask the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to approve a forced abandonment of the Felton Branch Line for freight operations. If that’s approved, RTC will likely pursue abandonment of the 32-mile Santa Cruz Branch Line next.
Roaring Camp Railroad in Felton is opposing the move. Its tourist trains operate over that corridor and it holds the right to use the line for freight business. If the STB abandons it, the corridor could lose federal regulatory protections and that could result in jeopardizing its easements to operate through certain areas like the state-owned Henry Cowell Redwoods Park.
In 2012, RTC used state Prop 116 funding to purchase the Santa Cruz Branch Line of the Union Pacific-owned railroad operating through Santa Cruz County. The money came with strings attached. As part of the “Clean Air and Transportation Improvement Act of 1990,” that funding was stipulated for use on a narrow band of projects that made $1.99 billion available for “passenger rail projects” or “bicycle and pedestrian paths in conjunction with rail and/or transit services.”
This means that a rail + trail project, as is currently recommended under the Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis (TCAA) recently completed by RTC, would still be eligible for that funding but if the RTC abandons the Santa Cruz and Felton Branch Lines and opts for ‘rail banking’ they would have to reimburse the state. For an explanation of railbanking, see my earlier column. slvpost.com/path-to-rail-trail-decision-must-cross-four-bridges.
It’s less clear how the Santa Cruz County voters who approved rail funding to be included as part of Measure D in 2016 would be reimbursed. The measure, which passed with more than ⅔ support across Santa Cruz County residents, allocated 8% of its funding to the preservation of rail corridor infrastructure and study of rail alternatives. An analysis that was completed in 2021 and resulted in the RTC’s adoption of a locally preferred electric passenger rail alternative, that afforded space for a bicycle and pedestrian use trail.
- 1990: California passes Prop 116 approving nearly $2 billion in passenger rail project funding.
- 2012: Santa Cruz County uses more than $14 million in state prop 116 funding to purchase the Santa Cruz Branch Line with the stipulation that it be used to create a passenger rail corridor.
- 2016: 67.78% of Santa Cruz County voters authorize the passage of a transportation sales tax (Measure D) which includes a projected $85 million in funding for rail investments.
- 2021: Santa Cruz County completes a rail study (Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis). TCAA recommends RTC pursue electric passenger rail as the best transit alternative for the corridor. RTC Commissioners vote to approve this recommendation.
- 2022: California’s Governor announces ANOTHER $2 billion in funding available for rail projects.
The voters of Santa Cruz County do not seem deeply conflicted about rail. They have repeatedly asserted their desire to see it in operation. So what’s changed?
The commissioners will tell you that the business plan completed following the passage of the TCAA suggested that the costs to implement and operate rail would simply be too great.
The problem is that they stipulated that more funding would be needed to implement the project when they approved the TCAA. The business plan should have been an exercise in understanding the various funding and operating models, selecting a preferred alternative and then putting together the funding recommendation.
No project is fully funded at its early conceptual stage. When the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority decided to bring BART to San Jose it developed a project plan, took it to the voters for sales tax authorization and then used that funding to seek federal earmarks. It didn’t happen overnight – massive infrastructure investments never do. But that’s because these are generational projects – investments we make as much for ourselves as for the future Santa Cruz County residents we hope will be able to enjoy living here as much as we do.
San Lorenzo Valley voters in the Fifth District get it. According to a 2021 survey conducted by CA-based FM3 Research (Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates), 73% of registered voters in the 5th Supervisorial District support continued planning for both rail AND trail.
That’s a significant number and Supervisor McPherson Bruce should take note. For a little perspective, Santa Cruz County residents only voted in favor of marijuana legalization by 69.89% so getting 73% support is a noteworthy feat.
Still Support Rail AND Trail? Send a Letter
Supervisor McPherson, who is also an RTC Commissioner, needs to hear from San Lorenzo Valley that we oppose the forced abandonment of the Felton Branch Line before the RTC meeting on February 3 and thereafter as long as the issue remains unresolved. If the RTC eventually votes in favor of forced abandonment, it will then go before the state Surface Transportation Board for final approval. The public will then have additional opportunities to comment before that decision is made.
Roaring Camp employs our neighbors, attracts tourist dollars to our community, and hosts some of our best-loved community celebrations. You can support this beloved institution by writing a letter today to Supervisor Bruce McPherson at Bruce.McPherson@santacruzcounty.us. And use Roaring Camp’s form to reach all of the RTC Commissioners at roaringcamp.com/save-the-beach-train.
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 of the Santa Cruz Big Trees Pacific Railway train contributed by Roaring Camp Railroads