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.