There’s an old meme that comes to mind for me when I think about the local rail trail debate.
It traces its origins back to Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. Rumsfeld was taking questions from reporters at a 2002 press conference, in the early days of the Iraq War, when he said: “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.”
And that’s when things got deep, with Rumsfeld explaining, “There are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Rumsfeld was roundly derided at the time for spouting nonsense, but over the years, policy nerds have come around to quoting it regularly. That’s because it’s not as obvious as it sounds, since people often fail to ask the important question at its core: how can anyone make an accurate prediction when they don’t even know what questions they should be asking about the future in the first place?
The fact this somewhat profound sentiment came from someone evading a tough question about an unpopular war is irrelevant. Rumsfeld’s lesson was that sometimes we forget how little we truly comprehend about the future that we think we’re planning for. The notion seems especially relevant to local heated public meetings, where most everyone in the room already has their mind already made up about the best solution to any given problem.
Here in Santa Cruz County, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) has plans to build a bike and pedestrian path along the county’s coastal rail corridor. Staffers and consultants are currently studying the possibility of introducing passenger rail service on the tracks, along with other options. Citing concerns about cost, ridership and overall feasibility, activists from both Greenway and Trail Now have suggested the RTC instead remove the tracks and use the corridor for an extra-wide trail.
Going forward it’s, at this point, still relatively unclear how either plan will really look or would get funded, much less what shape California’s transportation future will take decades from now.
The corridor’s future came into a little more focus on June 14, when the RTC tied the knot with Progressive Rail, voting 8-4 to ink a 10-year agreement with the freight operator in a hotly contested meeting. Reflecting on last week’s vote, Greenway Executive Director Gail McNulty, who opposed the draft agreement, says she’s “very worried” and believes the contract will tie up the county’s transportation options over the next decade. McNulty says her group needs to regroup before deciding on its next steps, although she says Greenway’s supporters are more motivated than ever.
Four commissioners voted against the agreement—including Capitola City Councilmember Jacques Bertrand and Scotts Valley City Councilmember Randy Johnson, along with Virginia Johnson and Patrick Mulhearn, alternates for county supervisors Bruce McPherson and Zach Friend, respectively.
Progressive Rail’s supporters—most of whom also support passenger service—have high hopes for the freight operator. With previous operator Iowa Pacific in violation of its contract, Watsonville-area shippers had been unable to send anything out on the local line, which is clogged with empty rail cars.
Supervisor Ryan Coonerty and county counsel both stressed that the RTC will get to make its decision on passenger service after the Unified Corridor Study (UCS) gets released, evaluating all options for the corridor.
Mulhearn, though, argued that the RTC’s path out of the agreement isn’t particularly clear.
“This contract is, in many ways, word for word, the Iowa Pacific contract,” Mulhearn said. “I realize now that the talking point is, ‘Well, we didn’t have a bad contract. We had a bad operator.’ Yeah, we had a bad operator, but we had no levers in our contract to remove that operator … I can’t support a contract that further disadvantages our decision makers.”
Mulhearn brought up other proposals to address the needs of the county’s major freight shippers in the coming months.
But before the RTC voted to approve the contract, those South County businesses asked for immediate relief and help getting their goods moving.
Bob Perlage, spokesperson for Big Creek Lumber, said that Big Creek bought property in Watsonville nearly 50 years ago on the rail line. His employer, he added, could lose half a million dollars a year if it had to ship all of its lumber by truck, which is less efficient than hauling by train, and therefore pricier.
Executives from two local cold storage businesses—Del Mar Foods and Lineage Logistics, each based in Watsonville—both said they process about 100,000,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year, and they’re heading into the busy season. They said switching to truck shipments would hurt their bottom lines, because their rates would go up.
P.J. Mecozzi, Del Mar’s president, tells GT that without a new freight rail agreement, his customers might have decided to look elsewhere.
“The rail’s an important asset to us here, and it has been for a long time,” he says.
When it comes to passenger service, the issues aren’t black and white for everyone.
The environmental nonprofit Ecology Action has generally supported RTC’s approach. However, Piet Canin, the group’s vice president of transportation, says Ecology Action isn’t necessarily married to the idea of a train, but rather that the organization has taken the position of not giving up on the idea of transit on the corridor.
“We’re agnostic as to what type of transit might be on the corridor,” Canin says, “but we think that preserving the tracks is important to fully investigate rail transit as an option.”
The most obvious non-rail transit option for the corridor would be bus rapid transit, alongside a bike/pedestrian path—something consultants have been looking at as part of the UCS. That could represent something of a middle ground, and it’s something Ron Goodman, former director of People Power (which is now called Bike Santa Cruz County), has been advocating for. Both Mark Mesiti-Miller, chair of Friends of the Rail and Trail, and some Greenway boardmembers have expressed tepid openness to me about that idea in recent months—even if it wouldn’t be their first choice.
Canin does note, however, that a train can accommodate far more bikes than a bus can.
There are other ideas floating around, too. Brett Garrett of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation has been calling for personal rapid transit (PRT), an idea that has come up periodically in Santa Cruz for decades. Although PRT systems come in various forms, some resemble the Sky Glider bucket ride at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk more than they do a traditional transportation network. Others look more like a monorail with miniature one-car trains.
Garrett says these pod cars and the rail corridor would be a perfect match for one another, though he realizes that many people have a hard time thinking about it with a straight face.
“But at the same time, in most cases, it means people haven’t taken a second look at it,” he says. “If you’ve never heard of the concept, you have to look at it and think about it. It’s forcing us to change the way we think about public transit. Thirty years ago, when people told us we’d all have little phones in our pockets, we’d think they were crazy, but here we are. We know all the basic components. Why not build it?”
Garrett, who’s been studying PRT for years, believes it would have lower carbon emissions and operating costs than other kinds of transit.
RTC Chair John Leopold is not yet ready to hitch a ride on the pod car dream.
“I haven’t studied it enough to say ‘no way,’” he says, “but I haven’t seen anything that would make me go toward wanting pod cars.”
In the meantime, the next few months make for something of a waiting game, while everyone awaits the UCS and the next step in the public process. There’s more than a small chance that the corridor study will have more than enough conflicting information for everyone to cherry pick their favorite parts to reinforce their own point of view.
I’m reminded of the city of Santa Cruz’s wide-ranging 2003 Master Transportation Study. Over the years, I’ve heard active transportation activists and city leaders from totally different parts of the political spectrum tell me the exact same thing about it: “It’s like the Bible. People read into it whatever they want to.”
Here’s hoping the UCS doesn’t end up the same way. Leopold says it matters less how the document is written, and more how the report gets read and interpreted—because if people want to cherry-pick data from a long-winded document, he says, they will.
“It falls into the ‘no-win’ category. The study’s going to use data and make some points,” says Leopold. “And there’s going to be recommendations from staff, but people will find the part of the report that most validates their point of view. The UCS isn’t going to be a magical document that gives all kinds of answers. It’s going to be open to interpretation. That’s pretty normal.”