In his book California Central Coast Railways, author Rick Hamman recounts how, in the summer of 1882, a bunch of businessmen decided to put a railroad from Aptos into the hills to get at the trees.
“Rumors were flying thick and fast that several of the officers of the Southern Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads had just completed a big deal with the Watsonville Mill and Lumber Company and the Fallon family concerning their individual timber holdings up Aptos Creek Canyon,” he writes. “By October of 1882, the Loma Prieta Railroad Company had acquired all of the necessary properties and capital such that the surveying, grading, and construction of the right-of-way could begin in earnest.”
Both sides of the Measure D fight agree on one thing—there’s no way a new train would go in that quickly now. Property rights are a big reason why, experts say.
In an interview with Good Times, Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Executive Director Guy Preston says there’s still plenty of work left to do to figure out just what agreements would need to be put in place for development on the planned—and controversial—rail corridor to proceed.
“We need to know if we need to obtain additional property rights,” he says.
That means working with an unknown number of individual landowners, each of whom could decide to frustrate plans for a trail or passenger rail.
One of them is Cristina Locke, who recently invited a tenant to open a restaurant in the Bayview Hotel she owns. It’s situated right where the Loma Prieta line used to join up with tracks going between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
The historic structure was built in 1878 by Basque forty-niner Joseph Arano. That was just before the forestry boom that employed around 200 Chinese graders putting tracks inland. Now there’s an orange-and-black No on D sign in front of the stately building that once housed a post office and saloon, and a sturdier one made of wood by the tracks sharing the same message.
Locke says it’s her land all the way across the tracks and halfway into Soquel Drive—unlike her neighbor to the south.
“I have this little piece extra,” she says, pointing into afternoon traffic.
The RTC believes it has rights to the portion the rails cut through, but admits the language on Locke’s deed leaves things open to interpretation.
On this May afternoon, an entire section of rails and ties are gone, leaving behind a gaping hole. It’s part of the work on a mixed-use development going in nearby.
Swenson Builders can’t sell any of the 29 new housing units until it secures a certificate of completion, according to Jessie Bristow, the project manager. It couldn’t get that until Locke signed off on allowing them to move a railroad crossing.
“I made a deal with them,” Locke says, explaining that the company’s chairman, Barry Swenson, has personally been working on the deal with her for quite some time. “For years he’s been after me and after me.”
Locke says she was originally offered just $10,000, but held out for more.
She finally agreed after the company offered to pay her at least $250,000, she says. Bristow disputes the way Locke characterized the deal, but multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations told Good Times the figure is in the correct range.
Local planners say they aren’t sure how many people hold what titles along the entirety of the rail corridor.
Luckily for them, Locke is enamored with the historic nature of having trains pass by.
“I’d be willing to sell part of my land for that,” she says.
To Bank or Not to Bank
It’s unclear if the other owners in the area would be quite so accommodating.
The County says the quarter-million-dollar payout is a unique scenario that isn’t indicative of how expensive future negotiations would be for potential passenger rail or trail construction.
But according to the RTC’s Preston, it’s not that simple. In fact, it was Swenson Builders’ challenges with Locke that opened his eyes to potential snags all along the corridor—and convinced him of the need for railbanking, he says.
Railbanking is an approach being promoted by Greenway supporters as a way to get a path built quickly while avoiding fights with homeowners and businesses.
The RTC says that if it doesn’t railbank, and the line is abandoned, it could lose its easements.
Supporters of Measure D argue that landowners like Locke could easily frustrate a rail-and-trail build, if planners don’t pursue this strategy.
It’s happened in other places. Last year, dozens of Sonoma County residents sued over a bicycle and pedestrian path next to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit tracks that hadn’t been railbanked first.
Usually the rail operator would apply for abandonment, but the RTC could pursue “adverse abandonment” to force the issue.
Whether this effort succeeds or not would come down to, among other things, the viability of the existing freight line, according to regulatory officials.
The Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that makes such decisions, notes each case is very different—and evaluated on its own merits.
The board considers if there’s a freight operator trying to make a go of the line, and looks at other factors like potential environmental harm.
STB spokesperson Michael Booth says the agency is tasked with preserving the integrity of the national rail network wherever possible, while still allowing for railbanking. That process came to be under the so-called “Rails-to-Trails” act of 1983.
“The board is primarily concerned with the network itself and making sure it’s useful for shippers and the public,” he says.
Roaring Camp Railroads has been a major force rallying people in Santa Cruz County—and beyond—against Measure D.
But Roaring Camp is the subcontractor of the actual freight operator, Twin Cities-based Progressive Rail’s St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, not the owner of the main branch.
For this reason, an attempt by Progressive to block a railbanking effort would likely carry more weight than one by Roaring Camp, analysts say.
Progressive’s CEO Lon VanGemert tells Good Times the company is firmly against the voters’ initiative—although he stopped short of saying they’d try to kill a railbanking drive.
“This poorly conceived measure aims to rip up the rail tracks,” he says. “Once that happens, there is very little chance they will ever come back.”
However, Progressive previously sent the RTC a 90-day notice of their intent to file for abandonment.
“We had concerns about it, of course,” Preston says, referring to the issues around property rights. “We could lose some of those easements.”
The company then reversed course, signaling it was no longer planning to move forward with abandonment, though it reserved the right to shut down at any point, Preston says.
VanGemert declined to comment on the about-face, saying only that if Measure D is successful, it will “seriously harm” its subcontractor.
Progressive now argues there are legitimate business prospects to be had with rail in Santa Cruz.
“We believe there is clear opportunity for growth in freight service in Santa Cruz County, as well as the future addition of passenger rail,” he says.
Progressive is still trying to get out of its freight obligations, according to Preston.
Meanwhile, the RTC is currently on the hook for millions of dollars in repairs, and hasn’t come up with the cash to hold up their end of their deal with Progressive.
The area used to be a center of profits for railroads. At one point, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company was shipping out 70,000 board-feet of wood a day. But even back then, it was hard to keep things up and running. For example, in early 1899, when bad weather severely damaged the tracks, the timber left on the mountainside wasn’t enough to justify repairs on that part of the line, according to a piece in The Mountain Echo on April 8, 1899.
Mark Mesiti-Miller of No Way Greenway says the fact that Progressive isn’t on board with railbanking means a bike-only path wouldn’t happen as quickly as Greenway suggests.
“I’ve been in this industry of public works infrastructure for more than three decades,” he says. “The idea that you could rip up the rails and put a trail down for 32 miles in four or five years is completely insane.”
It will be up to the RTC to prove to the STB the line isn’t viable for freight, if abandonment proceedings get underway, according to Mesiti-Miller.
“I think everyone would argue their case,” he says. “It becomes a long, arduous affair.”
Greenway’s Bud Colligan admits there’d be delays if Roaring Camp or Progressive opposes railbanking.
As far as the arbiters of the matter are concerned, STB spokesperson Booth says decisions are typically procedural, and the length of time they take depends on the motions that get filed. Without opposition, the process could be wrapped up in six months, but would probably still only take 2-3 years if the railroad tries to fight it, according to the RTC.