Real Trails vs. Theoretical Trains

On November 29th, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) published in their agenda packet an article authored by executive director George Dondero titled “Tracks, Trails, Truths and Myths”. In the article, Mr. Dondero addresses the concept of railbanking, the 2015 Rail Transit Feasibility Study, and what options the RTC is considering for the Santa Cruz Branch railway. This response from Trail Now provides a corrected and more realistic vision of the future of transportation in Santa Cruz County.

Mr. Dondero argues against railbanking, stating that once tracks are removed and a trail is built, it is unlikely tracks will be reinstated. As defined by the National Trails System Act, railbanking is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to preserve an out-of-service rail corridor for use as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again. At the time of an initial rail-trail conversion, the possibility of rail service reactivation is, by definition, remote since the corridor would not have been proposed for railbanking if there had been a foreseeable future need for rail service on the line.

Railbanking is not theoretical and is not a myth. In fact, as part of the purchase process in 2005, the RTC hired consultants to explore railbanking our corridor.

The following documents conclude that railbanking is a viable option for Santa Cruz:

  1. Memo regarding Santa Cruz Branch Abandonment 
  2. Memo regarding Potential Abandonment of the Santa Cruz Subdivision

A map from the Surface Transportation Board (STB) shows all abandoned and railbanked corridors in the United States. Nearly 6,000 miles of rail corridor in the United States have already been railbanked. Of those 6,000 miles, 3,600 have been converted to trail. That leaves approximately 2,400 miles of railbanked corridor unused and without a trail. If a trail was an impediment to restoring rail service, you would expect the some portion of the unused railbanked track (without a trail) reactivated. This is not the case, the corridors remain unused simply because rail service is not viable on those corridors.

While we applaud the RTC for purchasing the rail corridor, the unfortunate reality is they did so using $11 million in Proposition 116 funding that required a specific use: passenger rail. Keep in mind, the rail requirement was established before the best use of the corridor was determined.  The result is a classic tail-wagging-the-dog scenario and the RTC finds itself in the conundrum of how to make a train work when it won't.  

While the $11 million in funding may need to be returned if the community decides to pull up the tracks, it is also true that $11 million is a small fraction of the total cost required to build the RTC’s proposed rail-with-trail (RWT). Mr. Dondero states no money is allocated for the return of Proposition 116 funds in the “current approved spending plan”, nor was this use presented to the voters.  We disagree with this statement.  

Measure D was approved in 2016 by voters with a narrow 2% margin. To secure endorsements from trail-only supporters, the 8% expenditure plan allocation for the rail corridor (approximately $40 million total) was revised to include the following:

“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.”

Using Measure D funding to facilitate an active transportation passageway is within the boundaries of the preceding expenditure plan text, which was approved by voters.

Over the last three decades, there have been no fewer than five studies considering passenger rail service in Santa Cruz County. In 2015, the RTC completed the Rail Transit Feasibility Study. To date, this remains the most comprehensive document available for what passenger rail may look like in Santa Cruz County. The document was created with public input, and is meant to lay the groundwork for more detailed evaluation of operational characteristics and costs. Now, Mr Dondero calls the proposed scenarios referenced in the study “hypothetical” and cautions that it should “not viewed as a blueprint for the future”.

Herein lies the problem. The current RTC policy is to develop a real trail designed to accommodate a theoretical train.  Quoting from the February 2013 RTC Agenda:  

“...planning and design of the Trail Network assumes and prioritizes train service [our emphasis] on the rail right-of-way.”

Known as rail-with-trail (RWT), this “two-for-one” concept has been implemented elsewhere and is a viable solution for some communities. However, in Santa Cruz County, prioritizing train service by saving the tracks has a significant negative impact on the trail.  

Our corridor is narrow, with topographic constraints, and numerous bridges resulting in the following:

  1. Costs to build RWT are substantially higher due to the amount of retaining wall required and over twenty new bridges/trestles that would need to be built or re-engineered.
  2. Environmental impact on the corridor is high as we must excavate hillsides and remove trees, foliage, and habitat to make room for RWT.
  3. RWT’s ability to accommodate future growth is poor due to its narrower width and lack of separation between bicyclists and pedestrians.

Community members are coming to learn the shortcomings of the current plan and support is growing for an alternative: a wide trail built down the center of the corridor that separates pedestrians from cyclists. Rather then prioritizing theoretical train service, this plan prioritizes clean, healthy, and sustainable active transportation alternatives.  

So, what’s the solution? The Unified Corridors Study (UCS) is taking a look at possible options for use of the rail corridor. The study is underway and is expected to be completed by December 2018. 

To resolve this debate, the UCS study must:

  1. Complete a side-by-side analysis quantifying cost, environmental, and transportation differences between the two trail options.
  2. Determine benefits, capital outlay, and operational costs of passenger rail along with the likelihood of being funded, approved by the voters, and implemented in the near-term
  3. Weigh the economic, transportation costs, and environmental impact caused by RWT against the benefits and likelihood of passenger rail.

Only by completing these three steps can we move forward with an informed decision. Not doing so is fiscally irresponsible and a disservice to our community.

Bank on This


There’s been a lot of talk recently about railbanking. The discussion was kicked off by an op-ed written by Paul Schoellhamer, formerly with Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT). Anti-railbanking discussions primarily revolve around the same basic argument: Once you tear up the tracks and build a trail on the railbed, you have made it nearly impossible to put tracks back. But railbanking is not about removing tracks, it is about preserving the right-of-way—tracks or no tracks, trail or no trail.

The anti-railbanking argument is an emotional one, wrapped in a blanket of fear, with little recognition of fact or basic economic principles. The fundamental premise of the railbanking program is that once a corridor is placed in railbanking status, the railroad is entitled to reinstitute rail service on the line. At the time of the initial rail-trail conversion, the possibility of rail service reactivation is, by definition, remote, since the corridor would not have been proposed for railbanking if there had been a foreseeable future need for rail service on the line.

It is true no rail service has been reinstated on a railbanked corridor. This is not in dispute. However, arguing a rail corridor has not been reactivated because it was converted to a trail is simply false.

To date, about 5,900 miles of rail corridor have been railbanked and 3,600 miles now have trails open to the public. That’s great, but what about the other 2,300 miles of railbanked track without a trail? Keep in mind, railbanking does not mandate track removal. There are miles of railbanked corridors, with miles of railroad track in place.

With Trails3,600
Without Trails2,300

Again, the basic premise is removing tracks for a trail equals no rail ever. Well, if a trail was truly an impediment to restoring rail service, you would expect to see some rail service reactivated on the 2,300 miles of corridor without a trail, right? To the best of our knowledge, this hasn't happened. To date, 19 miles of railbanked corridor have been approved for reactivation. But, the railroad never went forward with restoring rail service on any of those segments. Why is that?

Railbanking simply preserves the right-of-way. This is a good thing. Otherwise the corridor would likely be absorbed into the surrounding parcels and would truly be gone forever. The fact that rail service has not been reinstated has nothing to do with a trail, and everything to do with basic economic principles.

All sides agree our rail corridor presents a tremendous opportunity. We also agree removing existing railroad infrastructure is not to be taken lightly. That said, railbanking supporters recognize the probability of rail service occurring in the foreseeable future remains extremely low. History has shown this to be true.    

  • 1983: A feasibility study was completed considering rail service between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. Same plan, same arguments, and 34 years later we have nothing.
  • 1994: There was the “Santa Cruz – Los Gatos Rail Corridor Feasibility Study”. It’s been 24 years, and we have nothing.
  • 1998: The “Around the Bay” rail study was completed for potential service between Santa Cruz and Monterey. Still nothing after 19 years.   
  • 1999: The Major Transportation Investment Study (MTIS) considered various passenger rail scenarios throughout Santa Cruz County. Again, we have nothing to show for this. 
  • 2015: The RTC completed the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line Rail Transit Feasibility Study.  Ridership estimates were low, diesel trains were recommended, and there’s still no plan for rail service.  

Currently, the RTC will study rail options again as part of the upcoming Unified Corridor Investment Study (UCIS).

Clearly, the RTC approach is:

  1. Study rail options
  2. Do nothing
  3. Repeat

How many more studies do we need? 

Top 10 Reasons Not to Build the Rail-With-Trail


The good folks at the Train Trust of Santa Cruz County recently posted their “Top Ten Reasons to Build the Rail Trail”.  Obviously, we created our own list of reasons not to build the proposed rail-with-trail.    

Quick side note, the Train Trust continues to use the ambiguous term “rail trail” and includes a photograph in their post looking directly down the center of the corridor.  Time for a reality check.  The proposed trail would be built adjacent to the tracks (properly referenced as a rail-with-trail) and would decimate the environment within the corridor.  We thought their mission statement was to protect and care for our extraordinary lands?  

We digress.  Without further ado, here are the top ten reasons not to build the proposed rail-with-trail:  
1.     Doubles the cost compared to building a trail down the middle of the corridor
2.     Requires 22 new bridges; including two freeway crossings
3.     Includes miles of retaining wall
4.     Removes thousands of trees and plants
5.     Installs a fence running the entire length of our county
6.     No separation between bicyclists and pedestrians
7.     Not 100% funded; new taxes and grants needed
8.     Circumvents existing UCIS study for best use of corridor
9.     Will include unsafe surface street reroutes
10.  There will never be a train

Farmers and North Coast Rail-to-Trail

Farmers on the north coast and Trail Now support a rail-to-trail from Swift Street to Davenport along the Coastal Corridor. This proposed alternative route has the most scenic views, is the lowest cost, and can be completed by the 2020 Federal Grant deadline. Trail Now is looking for community support for the farmers in the creation of the North Coast Rail-to-Trail.

An Overwhelming Bias

An Overwhelming Bias

The Santa Cruz RTC presented a report outlining possible uses of the rail corridor. The report was meant to be the beginning of an “open and transparent” process to determine the highest and “best use” of the corridor. However, the numbers included in the report, with little attribution or factual reference, don’t add up, and the analysis is so biased against a trail-only solution that it lacks credibility.


See that trail on the left? That's a 20-foot wide separated trail designed for transportation. The setback (distance to train tracks) is over 20 feet. What about the trail on the right? That one is about 10-feet wide, with no separation, and was designed for recreational use. The setback is around 10 feet and it runs adjacent to a tourist train.

At first blush, the two trails seem very similar, and that's the problem. Unfortunately, our corridor is too narrow to keep the train tracks and build the trail on the left. Instead, we've unwittingly been sold a recreational trail and most folks have no idea.

The rail-trail debate would be over if we could build the trail on the left, but we can't. Call us crazy, but we truly believe that this trail, if done properly, would change lives. It's the type of infrastructure the create a new way of life, making our community more walkable, sustainable, and healthy. Join us in saying: "Give Trail a Chance".