SANTA CRUZ — The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission has not yet requested the adverse waiver or termination of the freight operating agreement on the Roaring Camp-owned Felton Branch rail line. In fact, his committee has yet to discuss the idea in open session.

When it comes time to take the conversation to a public forum on Thursday, however, hundreds of RTC constituents will have already weighed in based on information provided by more than the primarily affected agencies – which range from fact to fiction – adding sentiment of pressure on the points awaiting realization.

Rolls of ridicule

Last week, before any official announcement of the agenda item by RTC representatives, Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark issued a statement condemning the transit organization for considering filing a request. of unfavorable abandonment of his family’s rail line, the Felton Branch Rail Line, with the Surface Transportation Board during a January 13 closed session. The Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency, deals with the economic regulation of several forms of surface transportation, but primarily rail freight, according to its website.

On the same day, the RTC confirmed that its board of directors would resume another conversation about the adverse abandonment, a procedural action that would help the entity pursue railbanking of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line if its leaders approved it. Railway bank, a method of preserving railroad right-of-way, has occurred in instances where federally regulated freight lines proposed for abandonment can be converted for interim use. The tactic has been opposed by Roaring Camp since at least March 2021, letters in the RTC agenda package show.

In one follow-up release Clark posted this week she said the unfavorable abandonment of freight, which is currently not active on the Felton Branch Rail Line, will affect its entire operation – including the famous tourist train to the promenade Santa Cruz Beach – as disconnecting the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line from operation at Maple Street in downtown Santa Cruz would mean losing federal protection on the Roaring Camp line.

This claim is supported by the decision of the Surface Transportation Board common carrier designation system, which, as a freight line, now offers Roaring Camp protection against political decisions made by local jurisdictions, such as the county. The Surface Transportation Board does not regulate recreational rail travel.

“The loss of federal protection will mean that our ability to reach the parkway with our tourist trains will be entirely controlled by the RTC and subject to the whims of the current RTC board and management, as well as those of the future,” Clark said. “Furthermore, the Felton Branch Rail Line will become vulnerable to future eminent domain claims.”

RTC executive director Guy Preston sought to explain the conditions directly in his report released ahead of the February meeting. It revolves around one point: RTC would prefer to find a legal settlement with Roaring Camp and the current rail operator who has yet to officially file the paperwork to drop the Santa Cruz Branch rail line, Progressive Rail.

Preston acknowledged that the unfavorable abandonment of rail on the Felton Branch Rail Line would leave Roaring Camp’s facilities a “blocked segment” of the existing arteries it connects to and spoke of the efforts his agency has taken to try to keep Roaring Camp in line.

For example, RTC has offered Roaring Camp a long-term lease of the portion of the Santa Cruz Branch rail line it uses to ensure the longtime community institution can continue to operate its Beach Train. There have also been conversations about the possibility of Roaring Camp expanding its recreational train services to Davenport or moving its rail equipment by truck.

Stuck on the tracks

So far, RTC and Roaring Camp have been unable to find common ground that would allow Roaring Camp to take over Progressive Rail’s current operating agreement. Abandonment and even railbanking could be avoided with Roaring Camp making an offer of financial assistance, buying the rail line at net liquidation value and assuming carrier and maintenance responsibilities for the line, Preston proposed as alternative.

However, Clark wrote in a 2021 letter that the operating agreement as written places too heavy a burden on the operator. This includes the repair and maintenance costs required to move heavy freight equipment across the secondary rail line.

“We hope you will consider our request as we believe negotiations may become difficult,” Clark wrote at the time of a proposed change to the deal.

While RTC suggests Measure D funds can be used to make the repairs outlined in the deal, Clark this week questioned the legitimacy of the financial estimates and the transparency of where they came from and how they would be paid for. .

If negotiations continue as they have, as it faces major and costly repairs to its own rail line, the RTC may need to act to protect future opportunities, Preston admitted. He stated in his report that if the RTC chooses not to pursue the idea of ​​filing an adverse abandonment request or if the Surface Transportation Board denies the request, the railbanking of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line becomes much less likely.

Also, the progress of future projects with ongoing environmental impact reports – segments 8 to 12 of the Coastal Path – would be affected as some preliminary designs require adjustments such as moving the track to accommodate a trail. or installing fences.

“If the RTC continues with the status quo until the agreement expires in 2028, the same circumstances that exist today will likely continue to exist,” he wrote. ‘However, RTC’s ability to operate rail could still be halted by opposition from a possible failed line and the dispute over repair funding for heavy freight service will remain unresolved.’

This is why RTC staff continually brought the concept of railbanking back to the commission: using the method north of Watsonville would effectively eliminate the need for about $50-65 million. It would also secure the RTC’s property rights to use rail segments for trails without spending taxpayer dollars on additional property rights.

The construction of a bicycle and pedestrian path on the 32 miles of branch line was sought until the county could identify adequate funding for the commuter passenger train, the locally preferred alternative chosen by the committee.