There is currently a campaign by a group of folks who want to remove the tracks from our rail corridor. We do not support such an action, so we are pleased to display the two opinion pieces below.

The first is by Paul Schoellhamer, which appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on November 4, 2017.

The second is by George Dondero, the Executive Director of our Regional Transportation Commission, which appeared in the Aptos Times, the Capitola-Soquel Times and the Scotts Valley Times on November  12, 2017.

A Trackless Waste

by Paul Schoellhamer

If a Russian hacker approached you with an offer to sell you security software that would protect all your data, would you buy it? Or would you think this guy must actually be offering me the opposite of what he claims to be offering me?

And if someone argued that tearing up the rail tracks from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, and paving over the railbed, was a good way to preserve the future option of rail service, would you buy that argument? Or would you think that sure sounds like something that would make it really hard to ever restore rail service, if we as a community ever decided we wanted to do that? They call tearing up the tracks, while claiming rail service can come back, “railbanking.” But what is that, really? And does it preserve the rail option, or does it have the opposite effect?

Around 40 years ago, a lot of rail lines, mostly in the eastern half of the country, were being abandoned. Local governments saw a great opportunity to turn those lines into recreational trails, which became very popular amenities for their communities. But some of those lines had an odd twist in the title history of their underlying real estate: back when the original rail company first acquired the land, there was a deed restriction added which made the transfer “for rail purposes.”

This put a cloud over the title, which resulted in local governments being reluctant to proceed with trail projects, no matter how popular those projects might be.

A few clever people in Congress came up with the solution: they invented the term “railbanking,” declaring that local governments converting a rail line to a trail could designate it “railbanking,” and that Congress hereby declared that such a railbanked trail would therefore be for a “rail purpose.” So by use of the word “railbanking,” voila!, the title problem was solved. Local governments went ahead with over 300 trails under the railbanking label.

But did it create a realistic option of ever restoring rail service? We’ve now had 34 years of real world experience with railbanking. In that period, about 5,900 miles of rail corridor have been railbanked, and about 3,600 of those miles now have trails open to the public. For only 19 of those 3,600 miles has authority to restore rail been obtained (that’s one half of one percent), and for zero of those 3,600 miles were the tracks or rail service ever actually restored after a railbed was paved over for a trail.

The reality is that once you tear up the tracks and pave over the railbed, you have made it nearly impossible to ever put the tracks back. Calling it railbanking does not change that reality any more than calling it a banana would.

So when someone tells you that we here in Santa Cruz County can tear up the tracks, pave over the railbed, call it railbanking, and somehow magically preserve the rail option for our community, you need to be as wary as you would be of that Russian hacker.

Why does any of this matter? The question here is not about the bike and pedestrian trail—it’s already well underway. We already have an approved Master Plan for the trail parallel to the tracks, we have the money for it from Measure D, and construction begins in a few months. The question being posed now by a few people is whether we should scrap all that, tear up the tracks, and start over, adding years of delay to the trail project.

So why not do that? There are many reasons it’s a bad idea. Here are just three:

First, if you think climate change is a serious problem and a serious threat to our way of life here in Santa Cruz County, and if you think we in our community have an obligation to do our part to reduce our contribution to that problem, then you need those tracks to be there. Transportation in our county is the economic sector that produces more greenhouse gases than all other sectors combined. We cannot make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gases without making a significant reduction in our transportation emissions. Rail transit in our most congested transportation corridor is very likely going to be an essential climate strategy at some point.

Second, congestion and gridlock on Highway 1 are not going away. Building major new thru lane capacity is prohibitively expensive. Of course, a light rail transit system, based on new technology (quiet and electric), built between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, won't be cheap either. But there's a big difference between the two: the state has consistently made it clear that state or federal money on the scale needed for through lane capacity increases on Highway 1 will not be available for that purpose. The state is far more supportive of light rail transit.

And third, there is a basic question here of fairness to our kids and grandkids. Realistically, when you tear up the tracks and pave over the railbed you have taken away the rail option from your community forevermore. It would be the height of arrogance for us to believe so thoroughly in our own infallibility at predicting the future, that we in effect tell future generations that we know the circumstances they will find themselves in better than they will know those circumstances themselves.

Paul Schoellhamer was for many years on the legislative staff of the U.S. House of Representatives, including as Chief of Staff of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He and his wife now own and farm a small orchard in south county.

Tracks, Trails, Truths and Myths

by George Dondero

The subject of the rail-trail is getting a lot of attention these days. Detailed and well-articulated opinions are flowing from many sources. Passions are running strong. In the fast-moving, social media-enabled environment we live in, some fundamental information is getting lost in translation. As we hit the one-year anniversary of the passage of Measure D, the local transportation funding measure, now is a good time to clarify some truths and myths.

The role of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is to provide options for the broad range of people in our community: commuters, our aging population, those who depend on transit, people with disabilities, businesses, bicyclists, walkers and residents living in each town in our diverse county.

Three specific rail-trail issues are the subject of some misunderstanding and feature myths that need to be debunked: the rail transit feasibility study, the concept of “rail banking,” and what options the RTC is currently considering.

The rail transit feasibility study of 2015 was not a proposal for rail transit. The hypothetical estimates in the study are not under consideration by the RTC as options for the future. The 2015 study is not viewed as a blueprint for the future—the RTC does not envision a future with low-tech trains moving at dangerous speeds through our neighborhoods.


However, the rail feasibility study was a theoretical look, based on the types of service for which data was available at the time, at what was possible on the rail line.

Also theoretical is the concept called “rail banking.” It certainly sounds tantalizing: pull up the tracks now and then put them back in some day in the future, if the community so decides. The reality is that after thousands of miles of tracks have been torn up during the more than three decades since the term was coined through an act of Congress, not a single mile of track is believed to ever have been replaced. While it is an attractive idea, the truth is that no one has ever seen rail return after it as been designated “rail banked.”

RTC logo

Measure D was approved in 2016 by over two-thirds of Santa Cruz County voters to address transportation needs county-wide. Measure D included funding for a public, transparent study of options for use of the rail corridor—the publicly owned property that runs from Watsonville to

Davenport and includes the existing rail line. That study, as part of the Unified Corridors Investment Study, is underway and is planned be completed by December 2018.

The Unified Corridors Study is taking a look at three possible options for use of the rail corridor: rail line with a trail, a trail only (no rail), and bus rapid transit. There are a couple of myths to be debunked here. In the case of the “rail with trail” scenario, the study does not envision the RTC would propose to run trains on the track immediately. It does, however, envision the tracks would be preserved for future use, if the community decided to pursue funding.

Another myth is that there is an option that would enable a trail to be built very quickly. In all scenarios, construction of a trail will take time, due to planning and environmental review, approval by the Coastal Commission, etc. The one exception to this is the segment that runs through the West Side of the City of Santa Cruz and the one in Watsonville from Lee Road to Walker St. Those segments, as approved by the Santa Cruz and Watsonville City Councils, are scheduled to be under construction in 2018 and 2019, respectively, as rail with trails.

A related issue is the idea that the RTC could simply use Measure D funds to pay back the State the $11 million that it provided to purchase the rail corridor on behalf of the public. The funds from the State came with the requirement that they be returned if the community decides to pull up the tracks. The current approved spending plan for Measure D does not have funds set aside for this purpose, nor was this use of funds presented to the voters.

However, Measure D funds have been approved to survey the rail corridor to determine the actual boundaries of the corridor. Surveys are often revealing, showing rail-trail width information that may be different from what is assumed in the advocacy for one option or another. Conducting needed survey work is a critical early step in developing any trail project (with or without a rail line or other transit).

Before drawing any conclusions on the best use of the rail line, the Unified Corridor Investment Study needs to be completed. It will inform RTC Commissioners and the public about a recommended use for the rail corridor based upon clear performance metrics.

What is the best use? Whatever the answer is, it will take a broad view and will prioritize future investments in the rail corridor, as well as the Highway 1 and Soquel Drive/Freedom Boulevard corridors.

Every scenario, in all three corridors, will be evaluated for environmental and climate impacts, how it supports our local economy and how it addresses equity in terms of how well it serves the entire population of the county, from South County to Mid County to North County. It is through these lenses—environment, economy and equity—that the various ideas for our future transportation vision will be studied, and ultimately judged.

From multi-use trails and battery-powered trains to e-bikes and bus rapid transit, the RTC is receiving many ideas and much feedback as the Unified Corridors Study moves forward. Please visit to learn more, get the facts and sign up for our email newsletter.

No matter the outcome of the ongoing community dialog and study, the RTC is committed to empirical analysis, transparency in the process and honoring the will of the voters who passed Measure D one year ago. On the issue of transportation, our community is engaged and this is a very good thing.

George Dondero serves as the executive director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.