Freight Trains Return to Santa Cruz
by Tyler Fox
Founder of Santa Cruz Waves
reprinted with permission
During a meeting this past June in the Watsonville City Council Chambers, I witnessed something that really rattled my cage. In a packed house, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) voted on whether to agree to a 10-year contract with a Minnesota freight company called Progressive Rail.
With Progressive’s strong ties to the fossil fuel industry and zero experience with commuter or tourist trains, it’s a wonder as to why it wants to come to Santa Cruz County. The RTC has been considering commuter and tourist trains as part of their “rail-with-trail” plan since they purchased the corridor in 2012. Lately, as part of the RTC's ongoing Unified Corridor Study (UCS), the rail corridor has been touted as the last potential north/south commuting route that can be developed in the county. Progressive Rail’s goal to transform this mostly defunct corridor into a thriving line of freight commerce by bringing new industrial partners from the Midwest does nothing to help with our gridlock crisis on Highway 1, and could in fact make getting through town worse by adding freight train delays at rail crossings.
The vagueness of their contract is also a big concern, and, unfortunately, it means that Progressive has the rights to the entire 32-mile stretch of corridor that cuts through neighborhoods, coastline and wetlands from Watsonville to Davenport. As for the “rail with trail” or “trail-only” options that have been at the forefront of the discussion about the corridor’s future, this contract states that Progressive won’t even start looking at that aspect for three years until they have a firm handle on the freight business in South County.
The meeting was standing-room only, with a majority of citizens voicing major concerns about Progressive Rail’s history, its environmental impact, and multiple loopholes within the contract. After the dust had settled, the results were in. Out of the 12 RTC commissioners, eight voted to move forward with the Progressive Rail contract, while four voted no. To put it mildly, I was shocked that the commission voted to move back to a dirty 100-year-old industry when we’ve made so many advancements in clean renewable energy and technology not to mention the fact that over ten thousand citizens have signed a petition saying “No” to rail and “Yes” for the option for a beautiful “linear park” connecting our communities. I drove home frustrated and confused, asking myself the question: Why aren't we being heard? It’s been weeks since, and the answer to that question is still unclear. What has become clear to me is that we need to get younger generations more active with local politics. It's time to step up and start taking control over the decisions that could affect our lives for generations. Since that meeting, I’ve taken to polling friends to see whether they can name any of our county supervisors. Many of these friends are highly educated professionals yet 95 percent couldn’t name a single one. My sincere hope moving forward is that we’ll start to realize that ignorance is only blissful until the moment shit hits the fan.
Progressive Rail Vote Results:
Commissioners voting yes: Mike Rotkin, Greg Caput, Ryan Coonerty, John Leopold, Cynthia Chase, Ed Bottorff, Richelle Noroyan, Trina Coffman-Gomez
Commissioners voting no: Patrick Mulhern (for Zach Friend), Randy Johnson, Jacques Bertrand, Gine Johnson (for Bruce McPherson)