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.
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:
- Study rail options
- Do nothing
How many more studies do we need?