Greenway Sues RTC

Greenway Sues RTC

For Immediate Release
July 19, 2018

Non-Profit Sues Santa Cruz Co. Transp. Commission Over Lack of Environmental Review, Flawed Contracting Process for Line Operator

In entering a 10-year operating agreement with Progressive Rail, RTC bypassed CEQA review requirements and shortchanged Measure D-funded analysis of future options for rail line use

Santa Cruz, Calif.– Today Santa Cruz County Greenway, a local non-profit organization, filed a lawsuit against the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. The complaint details concerns over the Commission’s June 14th decision to enter into a ten-year contract with a new operator for its Santa Cruz Branch Railroad line, which runs from Watsonville to Davenport. The suit alleges the Commission improperly entered into the agreement without first evaluating the environmental impacts associated with expanding freight operations on the line, as required by state law.

“The Commission’s approach is out of step with state law and with the promise to Santa Cruz County residents,” said Gail McNulty, executive director of Greenway. “Instead of waiting for the Unified Corridor Study to determine how this rail line could best serve our community, the Commission agreed to significantly expand freight rail operations on the line without evaluating potential impacts.”

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires public agencies to fully evaluate environmental impacts related to projects, including expanding freight operations, and to take steps to limit environmental impacts to the extent feasible. The Commission improperly determined this project was exempt from CEQA, despite a recent decision from the California State Supreme Court on a very similar matter that indicates otherwise.

The lawsuit identifies significant environmental consequences of moving forward with the proposed agreement. Likely effects include noise impacts from train traffic and horns on hundreds if not thousands of homes, schools, daycares, and other sensitive receptors within 100 feet of the line; public health impacts due to increased exposure to diesel particulate matter; public safety concerns related to the rail line’s dozens of at-grade street crossings; visual impacts from tank storage along the rail lines; and construction impacts associated with bringing the tracks into good working order, including harm to the adjacent Watsonville Wetlands and other sensitive habitats.  

Greenway advocates for a scenic, safe, and functional bicycle and pedestrian path along the 31-mile track that is the subject of the lawsuit.  

The organization’s leadership is concerned that by giving Progressive Rail the power to initiate, authorize, or deny changes to the rail corridor that conflict with proposed freight service, this agreement undercuts ongoing efforts to evaluate needed county transportation improvements. The agreement will ultimately hinder the development of alternative uses of the rail corridor including trails of any type, bus rapid transit, or other emerging transportation systems. Plans to improve Highway 1 backups stemming from constrictions at Aptos rail crossings could also be impeded. These options are currently being studied using sales tax funds specially designated by local voters for this purpose.

“Instead of offering hope for Watsonville residents who currently lose hours each day in Highway 1 gridlock, this agreement limits future commuting options for the rail corridor and creates yet another hurdle to highway improvement plans,” said Silvia Morales, a Greenway board member and Corralitos resident who commutes on Highway 1 daily. “The unbearable traffic disproportionately affects South County residents, limiting access to jobs and educational opportunities immediately outside of its boundaries. While we agree our businesses need access to reliable freight rail options, we simply can’t afford to close the door on other potential transportation solutions before the most effective plans have been determined.”

Greenway is also concerned that by claiming the agreement with Progressive Rail was exempt from CEQA, the Commission broke its promise to study the environmental impacts of any future use of the rail line. The Commission purchased the rail line from Union Pacific in 2012. At the time, the Commission’s stated purpose was to preserve the rail corridor for “future uses by the public at large,” and the agency specifically committed that future use of the line would be “subject to separate environmental review.” Despite this promise, the Commission entered into this new agreement without conducting such review.

“In approving this agreement without complying with CEQA, the RTC left itself open to a lawsuit. And, unfortunately, the buyout clause in the agreement is not foolproof, which means this agreement could ultimately limit options for how we use this rail line for many years,” said Manu Koenig, a Greenway board member. “Greenway’s focus is to enhance the lives of people throughout all of Santa Cruz County with safer, healthier transportation options. We hope to find collaborative ways to protect the environment along this amazingly beautiful corridor and create new access so that people of all ages and abilities can begin using it as an alternative commuting route.”

The Commission’s failure to conduct environmental review is particularly egregious because the new agreement will allow Progressive Rail to greatly expand freight service on the line. Since 2012, a short-line railroad operator has operated a modest number of freight trains (approximately 350 carloads per year on the first three miles of track), and, between 2012 and 2016, seasonal tourist trains. Now, much of the line is in a state of disrepair and disuse. 

The new 10-year agreement with Progressive Rail will dramatically alter the status quo by allowing the company to operate unlimited freight service on the entire line in exchange for license fees paid to the Commission. This could include transporting and holding hazardous commodities on the rail line. The agreement also obligates the Commission to fund extensive construction to fully repair the line, the first phase of which alone is estimated to cost $2-3 million. The Commission has not denied that these new activities could severely harm the environment and impair public safety.  

“The law is very clear that the Commission was required to conduct an environmental review before engaging in this contract with Progressive Rail,” added attorney Sara Clark of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP who represents Greenway in the case. “Greenway and other concerned members of the public deserve the chance to explain their concerns and ensure the Commission does everything feasible to limit the environmental and public health impacts of expanded rail operations.”

To obtain a copy of the complaint, contact or 831-824-4563.