Recent information circulating in our community regarding both rail lines within Santa Cruz County has caused quite a stir. As many members of the public are aware, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) owns the rail corridor stretching from Watsonville to north of Davenport while Roaring Camp owns the rail line running east from Santa Cruz city limits to Felton and beyond.
Reports that the RTC has decided behind closed doors to proceed with an adverse abandonment of freight service along the Roaring Camp rail line are not correct. It is true the RTC has been discussing various options during many months of closed sessions to gain a better understanding of the issues we face in making the RTC-owned rail corridor available for beneficial public use.
The RTC purchased its part of the rail line more than 10 years ago using Prop 116 funds. Since then, we have spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars conducting numerous studies to analyze options, including the complexities and expense of implementing passenger rail service and building a multi-use trail. The RTC has and will continue to fulfill our obligation for accepting Prop 116 funds, and I was pleased to not only support this work but to ensure that passenger rail remains an option.
The RTC has been undertaking its due diligence as a public body regarding what type of projects along the rail line are feasible. The commission voted in closed session to daylight this information further in the form of a public report at its Feb. 3 meeting. We did this in the interest of transparency and the need to educate the public regarding the difficult decisions we face to make the RTC-owned line available for the public good while ensuring that Roaring Camp’s business is not negatively impacted.
Roaring Camp has been a treasured business in the San Lorenzo Valley for decades and it has been my privilege to support their business on all levels, especially during public policy discussions and decisions. I will continue to advocate for the business health of Roaring Camp and will not support any decision that will undermine their passenger rail business. I can also personally attest to the fact that Roaring Camp has universal support in this regard from both the RTC and staff.
The real question is whether freight service is viable. There are numerous indicators we must consider. First, each of the rail operators that contracted with the RTC since the CEMEX plant closed in Davenport years ago have not been able to make freight business financially successful. They have sought to get out of their contractual obligations to provide freight service. Freight service to Watsonville from the south is active, and thanks to Roaring Camp, existing freight customers continue to be served. Continued freight service in Watsonville is supported among the RTC and staff. However, north of Watsonville, we also need to consider the condition of the RTC-rail line, especially our bridges, to warrant freight service.
The cost to repair the bridges and make other necessary repairs for heavy freight service is estimated at upwards of $60 million alone. This funding would come from the taxpayers, and there is no current source. The federal and state money that has been widely touted as available for rail lines is primarily available for other rail projects where existing freight service exists or ridership and population density are well-documented to warrant commuter rail.
The criteria for the remaining funds do not favor success for our county in a competitive grant round, although I am confident the RTC staff will continue to evaluate all viable funding opportunities for approved projects, including passenger rail. I continue to be grateful for the County Measure D and State Senate Bill 1 transportation funding. But I believe it would be fruitless to ask Santa Cruz County taxpayers for dedicated rail funding at this time. We should first get our current transportation network repaired and continually maintained. We also need to demonstrate to the taxpayers that they can have confidence in our judgment regarding how we spend the precious project dollars they have entrusted to the RTC.
Rail banking, which is part of the abandonment process, is a strategy to preserve the freight rail property for future freight re-activation. If a line is railbanked, passenger rail can be implemented at any time when it is affordable and feasible. The decision to railbank the RTC-owned line has not been made yet. There will not be an action item on adverse abandonment on the Feb. 3 agenda, and if there were, I would not vote to move forward as there needs to be more information and a better understanding of the issues. We need to keep our lines of communication open and continue to explore all options in the best interest of the public to gain a full understanding of what our tax dollars will eventually pay for along the publicly-owned rail right of way.
Bruce McPherson is the Fifth District Supervisor for the County of Santa Cruz, including the San Lorenzo Valley and parts of the cities of Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Press Banner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 831-454-2200.