Rail Trail Confidential

Find the train in this picture

The Sentinel and Register-Pajaronian published an identical letter, headlined respectively “Are Koch brothers behind rail-trail opposition?” [1]and “Big money trying to kill rail trail”[2]. A similarly themed letter, “Conspiracy Theory”[3], appeared in Good Times. The letters assert that the Greenway trail leadership has “suddenly appeared” and is playing into the hands of the Koch brothers and “Americans for Prosperity”.

“Follow the money”, rather than guessing at motivation, might answer the letter writers’ assertions. Following the money locally reveals a consortium of interests supporting the “rail with trail”.  Following the money beyond the county leads to the needs of a glutted fossil fuel industry.

The future of the Santa Cruz Branch Line may be a trail only or may be rail with trail, or nothing or something else, but right now, in the non-theoretical present, it is storage for fossil fuel tank cars. The rail trail interests, not Greenway, have introduced fossil fuel transport and storage by rail into Santa Cruz County.

The pinnacle organization promoting rail is the Regional Transportation Commission[4], which has been awarded a half percent sales tax exclusively for its use. This Measure D money reportedly generates about 17 million dollars per year[5].

The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County has been the lead non-governmental organization endorsing the RTC’s rail agenda. It has bought full-page ads[6] to that end and its’ website is an organ of rail trail information[7]. It has several million dollars in matching grants tied to the RTC[8]. The institutions are married; the Land Trust’s popular wildlife underpass on highway 17 depends on the RTC match[9].

Bike Santa Cruz County and Ecology Action have also been prominent is supporting the RTC’s rail; this year each received 40 and 50 thousand dollars respectively from the RTC, according to the RTC grant programs pages[10].  $22,974,831 of Ecology Action’s income of $23,309,915 was government grants in 2016[11]. Friends of the Rail Trail (FORT) shares an office with Ecology Action and is fiscally sponsored by them, a registered 501c3 charitable non-profit. Tax-deductible donations funneled through Ecology Action support FORT’s political action[12].

Friends of the Rail Trail is led by Mark Mesiti-Miller, the principal emeritus of MME Civil and Structural Engineering (Mesiti-Miller Engineering)[13]. M-ME.com lists the “Santa Cruz Rail Trail” as one of their engineering projects[14]. Mesiti-Miller is also on the executive committee of the Sierra Club[15], which endorsed the rail with trail. Mesiti-Miller is co-principal with Donna Murphy of DM5 consulting, according to their respective Linked-In pages[16][17], and Donna Murphy is chair of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County[18].

It is as if public funds are being used to promote a particular and contentious public policy. It is as if the environmental movement has gone from insurgency to institution, as if protecting the institution is more important than protecting the environment. The stored LPG tank cars are not reducing traffic; they are part of the fossil fuel energy glut brought about by fracking[19].

Source: Energy Information Administration
Record US fossil fuel production; the branch line will absorb parts of the excess capacity.

The otherwise good deeds of the Land Trust, Ecology Action, and Bike Santa Cruz County have been subverted.

All of these RTC-aligned organizations and individuals have tacitly endorsed current and future storage of hazardous material placarded tank cars on the Santa Cruz Branch Line.

The Hazardous Materials Division of the Federal Railroad Administration, in response to alleged violation reports on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, says, “An excepted track that can hold 100 cars is allowed to have 100 cars of placarded material stored on that track”[20]. “Placarded” refers to the hazardous material placard on these tank cars. About 81 tank cars will fit on a mile of track[21].  

The current rail contract between the RTC and Progressive Rail forbids “material interference with freight”[22], in this case fuel tank cars. Federal transportation rules will also protect the rail operator over most local environmental regulations.

The RTC staff helpfully points out to the Commission that “there are no petroleum refineries in Santa Cruz “[23]. What staff fail to note is that the branch line is attached to the main line, serving five refineries in Richmond and Benicia and that area’s petrochemical complex[24].

The rollback of fuel efficiency standards proposed by the Trump administration is aimed at California’s standards[25] and to, by inefficiency, help absorb some of the fuel over-production. Santa Cruz County’s quiescence on fossil fuel storage and transport make it a weak link in California’s greenhouse gas emission goals.

Finally, a frequent contributor to the Sentinel and Pajaronian online comment forums and letters is Barry Scott. Barry Scott is on the board of FORT [26]and is on the national staff at NEED.org[27]. NEED is a DC-area lobby operation that “works with energy companies, agencies and organizations to bring balanced energy programs to the nation’s schools “[28]. The “balanced” curriculum misses discussing climate change and greenhouse gasses[29]. Did you know that “Water vapor is the most common greenhouse gas”?[30] The top 14 contributions to NEED last year range from $68,000 to $492,895[31]; members of the Board of Directors include BP, Phillips 66, and Exelon[32]. NEED.org delivers fossil fuel-friendly curriculums (for free!) and local political advocacy to Santa Cruz.

Many people want a trail; some people want a trail with a rail. But very few people want fuel tank car storage, yet that is what’s happening. Could the Koch brothers have done better?

[1] www.santacruzsentinel.com/article/NE/20180823/FEATURES/180829854

[2] https://register-pajaronian.com/article/letters-to-the-editor-aug-24

[3] https://issuu.com/metrosiliconvalley/docs/good_times_santa_cruz_1835 (page 4)

[4] https://sccrtc.org/projects/rail/

[5] https://ballotpedia.org/Santa_Cruz_County,_California,_Transportation_Sales_Tax_Measure,_Measure_D_(November_2016)#cite_note-quotedisclaimer-2

[6]http://santacruzsentinel.ca.newsmemory.com/?token=WDeiPPYb6y04FsOa29sTikU%2f3eELB52i&product=eEditionSCS

[7] https://www.landtrustsantacruz.org/?s=RTC

[8] https://https://www.landtrustsantacruz.org/?s=RTC+match

[9] https://www.landtrustsantacruz.org/wildlife-crossing-love-fest/

[10] https://sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ExhibitA-2018RTIP-approved.pdf

[11] http://990s.foundationcenter.org/990_pdf_archive/942/942584236/942584236_201612_990.pdf  (Part VIII e)

[12] https://santacruztrail.org/railtrail/donate/

[13]http://m-me.com/assets/mme-resume-mark-m-principal-emeritus.pdf

[14] http://m-me.com/project-map.html (under Roads, Trails and Sites)

[15] https://www.sierraclub.org/ventana/santa-cruz/santa-cruz-group-committees

[16] https://www.linkedin.com/in/mmemark/

[17] https://www.linkedin.com/in/donna-murphy-8608b28/

[18] https://www.landtrustsantacruz.org/who-we-are/board/

[19] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=34572

[20] https://laselva.us/?p=57 (email from Federal Railroad Administration)

[21] https://www.gbrx.com/manufacturing/north-america-rail/tank-cars/337k-pressure-tank-lpg-propane-butane/

[22] https://sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Item-22-replacement-pages-and-attachmnts.pdf   (section 2.3)

[23] https://sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Item-22-replacement-pages-and-attachmnts.pdf (page 5, item 3)

[24] http://oilspilltaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Task-Force_oil_movement_westCoast_2018_FINAL.pdf

[25] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2018-08-02/inside-the-u-s-fuel-economy-rollback-proposal-video

[26] https://santacruztrail.org/railtrail/board-members/

[27] http://www.need.org/board-staff

[28] http://www.need.org/

[29] https://issuu.com/theneedproject/docs/elementaryenergyinfobook

[30] https://issuu.com/theneedproject/docs/intermediateenergyinfobook (page 28)

[31] http://www.need.org/files/NEED%202017-12%20Tax%20Form%20990%20Public%20Disclosure%20Copy-Signed.pdf (Schedule B, page 22)

[32] http://www.need.org/board-staff

It’s official: I was mistaken. You can store as many hazmat tank cars as will fit.

More than 100 LPG tank cars, with Hazardous Material placards, grace Watsonville.

Jul 25, 2018 (via email)

Re: LPG Tank Car Storage Complaint

 

Mr. Becker,

Thank you bringing this issue to our attention! Unfortunately, there is no violation of 49 CFR 213.4 for the storage of more than five (5) LPG tank cars on excepted track located on the Santa Cruz Branch Line.

§213.4(e)(3) specifically states:
“No freight train shall be operated that contains more than five cars required to be placarded by the Hazardous Materials Regulations (49 CFR part 172);”

This citation applies specifically to train operations (car movement). Not the storage of cars on “excepted” track. This citation only restricts the movement of loaded placarded cars to five (5) or less in a train operating on excepted track.

In other words, an excepted track that can hold 100 cars is allowed to have 100 cars of placarded material stored on that track. However, when the cars are moved into or off of that track, no more than five (5) loaded placarded cars can be moved at a time.

If the placarded cars are classified as empty (“residue” in hazmat service), this restriction does not apply and the railroad is permitted to move more than five (5) placarded cars at a time.

On behalf of the FRA, I apologize for the delay in providing you a response to your previous complaints regarding this issue.

With this response, we consider this issue closed. However, if you have additional concerns regarding this issue, please feel free to contact me directly.

Sincerely,

Mark A. Maday
Staff Director
Hazardous Materials Division
Office of Technical Oversight
Federal Railroad Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
O:202-493-0479
Email: mark.maday@dot.gov

A rail travelogue and commentary

The rails have nearly disappeared since my 1980 journey.  Nature is voting for the trail.

I have ridden the train from Watsonville to Santa Cruz.

In 1980 I and three other videographers had an early morning rendezvous in Watsonville with a man from the Southern Pacific Railroad. He had driven from Sacramento expecting to meet up with KSBW Channel 8; when he learned we were from Capitola Community Channel 8, his misery was tangible. Salvaging his morning, he asked our respective roles (camera, sound, engineer, and producer) and if we were armed. Satisfied, he pointed us to the caboose.

At that time Southern Pacific was the owner and operator of the Branch Line. SP’s rail network covered much of the country with some of its track rated at 80 mph and more. In contrast, the Santa Cruz Branch Line was rated “Excepted Track”, the lowest, slowest track class possible.

Under typical marine layer skies the diesel engine revved and pulled us slowly across Lee Road. I expected the train to speed up when we left the warehouse district and asked the SP worker with us in when we would start going faster. “This is it”, he said.

Our slow speed offered slow views not seen from roads. Crossing the Watsonville and Harkins Sloughs was reminiscent of the lagoons of Venice: the magical admixture of water and sky and mountain. On earth as it is in heaven.

The engine becomes louder as the slough passes and the hill rises from the Pajaro Valley. This is the steepest climb of the entire Branch Line and the engine strains, enters gradual switchbacks and into primordial-feeling eucalyptus forest. Again, something not seen from the road, the forest has a denseness and darkness and the special eucalyptus lemon mint scent, discernible even from the caboose balcony of a stinking diesel train.

The train emerges from the forest and crosses Buena Vista Road, from which point the Branch Line is visible from public roads for the rest of its route.

The top speed on Excepted Track is 10mph, and no passengers are allowed. We were given permission as putative documentarians to ride in the caboose. The Branch Line is still Excepted Track and has deteriorated below the value of scrap by some reckoning. (The short segment where the Roaring Camp train loads at the Boardwalk is maintained Class 1 Track.)

The next crossing, Spring Valley Road, is notable as the location and destination of several renditions of “The Train to Christmastown”. How the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission circumvented federal law (Code of Federal Regulation “49 CFR § 213.4 Excepted track”), which prohibits operation of occupied passenger trains on Excepted Track, is a mystery. “Unsafe at any speed” might be the tag line for your next visit to Santa by local rail.

Speaking of safety, also in “49 CFR § 213.4 Excepted track”: “No freight train shall be operated that contains more than five cars required to be placarded by the Hazardous Materials Regulations (49 CFR part 172)”. Hazardous material experts consider that “empty” tank cars are even more dangerous than full with the increased available oxygen.

There are currently nearly 100 hazardous material placarded tank cars parked in Watsonville and over the sloughs. The north coast will neither be spared, saving the RTC from charges of inequity and treating South County as a colony.

The Southern Pacific and later the Union Pacific were true railroads, moving local freight and serving local customers. By that standard, Progressive Rail is not a railroad. It is more accurately a part of the energy sector, specifically what is called a “midstream” operator. “Upstream” is where the energy oil, gas, or coal is extracted. “Downstream” is where the product reaches the users’ pilot light or gas tank. “Midstream” is everything else. Progressive operates in this space, and its arbitraged LPG tank cars are the sweet profit spot.

Awarding freight rail contracts means the loss of local and state hazardous materials oversight. Sonoma and Marin counties are already unable to control hazardous LPG cars on their tracks, even adjacent to the touted SMART passenger service. The Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Services is the local hazardous material clearing house. SCCEH have never received the required “hazardous materials business plan” from Iowa Pacific, nor do they expect one from Progressive. “We don’t have the regulatory authority to stop them,” says the hazardous material program manager Rebecca Supplee.

RTC lawyers are investing their time on contract law for the Progressive deal. They might instead direct their attention to civil and criminal penalties in the Code of Federal Regulation 49. Rail at any cost, by whatever means necessary, and unsafe at any speed, is sadly the current RTC standard operation procedure.

Meanwhile, back in 1980, the combination of slow travel (who knew it would take more the three hours to get to Santa Cruz?) and 1980 battery technology for our Sony Portapak, meant that our documentary was never produced. Still, it was a privilege to travel the route; the Branch Line is an engineering and environmental marvel. It deserves better than what the RTC plans.

Originally published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, June 15, 2018

Rail or Trail: one or the other

This means you

The rail and trail discussion has taken a lot of local bandwidth. 31 miles of beautiful public property deserves the best we can bring to the table.

To put it simply: Rail and Trail will not work; it’s one or the other.

The No Trespassing signs along the rail right of way are aimed at more than encampments; they apply to everyone on foot or wheel. It is the railroad’s legal right to insist on this, their liability, and their obligation. This is the law: No Trespassing on the right of way and for twenty feet on either side of the track (California Penal Code Section 369i-402c).

The storing of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in tank cars, now in Watsonville and with the Progressive Rail agreement further up the coast, is dangerous. Recreational uses on the right of way are both illegal and ill-considered by this proximity to hazardous material.

Propane is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels. It is used safely for domestic heating and cooking, as a fuel additive, and for backyard barbeques. But in transit it is labeled a hazardous, flammable material. Locally it is moved in single walled rail tank cars of about 30,000 gallons, and pressurized up to 250 psi. They display the red hazardous material placard, “UN/NA 1075” and the flammable icon. Generally storage and transit is safe. But when transit or containment of propane goes wrong, it goes very wrong. It even has its own acronym: BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). It is a firefighter’s nightmare.

The Progressive Rail tank cars will not be empty, no matter what you are told, nor will they “park”. They will be “Storage in Transit”, or SIT. Storage in Transit means the cargo, in this case LPG, is headed to a customer, eventually, and that the transaction is protected by the commerce clause in the US Constitution.

In the rail logistics world Storage in Transit is called a “Warehouse on Wheels”. It allows commodities, such as LPG, to be stored and arbitraged as spot prices change, either “backwardation” or “cotango” in the futures market terms. The price fluctuations in LPG generally follow those of gasoline, and money is made in that spread.

The money for Progressive is not in storing empty tank cars; the money is in the value-add of filled cars available to respond to the LPG spot market. These are standard business models in the rail logistics world. The RTC will have no play and no say.

As the agreement with Progressive states several times: no local Regional Transportation Commission can “materially interfere with the Railway’s Freight Service rights and obligations under federal law, or rights under the Freight Easement, unless first approved by the STB” (the federal Surface Transportation Board). There is no going back, and no local recourse, once the Progressive deal is penned.

Everything else in the deal is blowing smoke to gratify Directors Dondero and Mendez, who have taken what they thought was the path of least resistance. Instead they have led us to the point where the most beautiful place on earth is a rail siding for hazardous material.

The route forward is to legislatively or administratively amend California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) section 99640 (the Branch Line purchase) and to immediately begin taking advantage of and implementing Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 49 §1152.29 “Prospective use of rights-of-way for interim trail use and rail banking.”

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel,  June 3, 2018

Watsonville “rebranding” sidetracked

Watsonville mayor Oscar Rios articulates a new vision for the city in 2017.   Photo © Register-Pajaronian

Six months ago the political leadership of Watsonville hailed a “rebranding” of the city. It was a vision of Watsonville as a visitor destination, a leveraging of the unique wetlands ecosystem and a safe and healthy multicultural city. “How do we get them (tourists) to stop here, and how do we get them to see the beauty we see every day?” then-mayor Oscar Rios asked. “I think that’s the challenge.”

It is an unmet challenge, and a deferred vision. Policy developed by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) will encourage tourists and birders to keep on driving by. Safe walking and biking options (in the least safe biking and walking city in California), and more accessible public open space (in the fastest growing area in the County), are being traded to a rail monopoly.

Hundreds of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tank cars will creak along the rails from Pajaro Junction, along Walker Street, cross down to Lee Road, and park on the track leading to and over the Watsonville Slough, continuing even out to Buena Vista Road. The visible blight will brand Watsonville as the leading fossil fuel enabler of the Monterey Bay.

There is nothing the city or citizens can do to stop this. Once the RTC grants Progressive Rail Incorporated the rights to operate on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, it will cede local control of the publicly owned Branch Line to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).

Rail transportation in the US is federally regulated. The STB is mandated and empowered to prevent local interference in national commerce. “Local interference” includes local environmental laws, as adjudicated by the STB. Progressive Rail and its fossil fuel caravan will be a local monopoly with no local control. Once in place, Progressive Rail’s right of way will be Progressive Rail’s right of way.

Progressive Rail is not actually “progressive”– at least in the locally understood sense of the word. Progressive Rail is a for-profit rail logistics service based in, and serving, the industrial upper Midwest. It has broken unions and seized public rights of way. It is not a good corporate neighbor. In Progressive’s home territory, Chippewa County Wisconsin, it is asserting its right to close a mile of public road to assemble its mile-long unit trains.

This will be Progressive’s first operation out of the Midwest. Watsonville Slough will provide an inexpensive marshaling area for LPG unit trains and will be Progressive’s profit center and its value proposition for long haul railroads.

Until last year the RTC had granted the Branch Line right of way to Iowa Pacific. Iowa Pacific parked over 100 tank cars across the Watsonville Slough and then evaded paying their $4.50 a day per car rent to the RTC. To fulfill the RTC-mandated passenger rail service, Iowa Pacific ran the Train to Christmas Town, an undulating holiday season jaunt to the Buena Vista Landfill, and later to the KOA. The RTC is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.

The 32-mile Santa Cruz Branch Line has been public property since 2011. It has bounced from public control to private control, now in public control and soon back to private. Its public use has been debated, often behind closed doors, with the RTC usually supporting private rail over a public trail. What the deal with Progressive Rail does is a sort of compromise: industrial rail for Watsonville and scenic trails for Santa Cruz.

Keeping Watsonville on the wrong side of the tracks has come through an alliance of rail advocates, an RTC committed to past policy failures, and, strangely, the Sierra Club and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

The Land Trust advocacy for rail is particularly unsettling because the Watsonville Slough Farm, adjacent to the LPG tank car parking, is under their stewardship. The immediate visual impact and the potential environmental hazard to the slough should be obvious. Instead the Land Trust has been one of the loudest proponents of rail, buying full-page advertising to that end. The Sierra Club, usually a home for tree-huggers, has become Santa Cruz County’s leading abettor of fossil fuels.

When one asks why Santa Cruz environmentalists support industrial rail for Watsonville, is it because it’s not in their backyard?

Originally published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian April 27, 2018

The future of local rail: remote control

More than 100 LPG tank cars, with Hazardous Material placards, grace Watsonville’s downtown and surroundings.

There is no need for abstraction or ambiguity. Come to Watsonville and see. Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tank cars cross the Pajaro River, move down Walker Street, cross West Beach, and jog left to Lee Road. From there they cross the farmlands and over the Watsonville and Harkins sloughs, and sometimes even out to Buena Vista Drive. They park by the hundreds in town and garden and wetlands.

This is the landscape developed by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). As for the impact zone, Watsonville, safe walking and biking options (in one of the least safe biking and walking cities in California), and more accessible public open space (in the most densely populated city in Santa Cruz County), are being traded by the RTC to a rail monopoly.

It is not Watsonville’s fault, but there is nothing the city or citizens can do to stop this. Once the RTC grants Progressive Rail Incorporated the rights to operate on the publicly owned Santa Cruz Branch Line, it will cede local control to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).

Rail transportation in the US is federally regulated. The STB is mandated and empowered to prevent local interference in national commerce. “Local interference” includes local environmental laws, as adjudicated by the STB. Progressive Rail and its fossil fuel caravan will be a local monopoly with no local control. Once in place, Progressive Rail’s right of way will be Progressive Rail’s right of way.

This will be Progressive’s first operation in California. Watsonville Slough will provide an inexpensive marshaling area for LPG unit trains and will be Progressive’s profit center and its value proposition. Progressive’s specialty is rail logistics for larger carriers. As for local service, moving hundreds of tank cars in order to deliver a load of lumber, or anything else, will be a very low priority.

Until last year the RTC had granted the Branch Line right of way to Iowa Pacific. Iowa Pacific parked over 100 of their tank cars across the Watsonville Slough and then evaded paying their $4.50 a day per car rent to the RTC. To fulfill the RTC-mandated passenger rail service, Iowa Pacific ran the Train to Christmas Town, an undulating holiday season jaunt to the Buena Vista Landfill, and later to the KOA. The RTC is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.

What the new deal with Progressive Rail will do is a sort of compromise: industrial rail for Watsonville and scenic trails for Santa Cruz.

Keeping Watsonville on the wrong side of the tracks has come through a northern alliance of rail buffs, an RTC committed to past policy failures, and, strangely, the Sierra Club and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

The Land Trust advocacy for rail is particularly unsettling because the Watsonville Slough Farm, adjacent to the LPG tank car parking, is under their stewardship. The immediate visual impact and the potential environmental hazard to the slough should be obvious. Instead the Land Trust has been one of the loudest proponents of rail, buying full-page advertising to that end.

When one asks why Santa Cruz environmentalists support industrial rail for Watsonville, is it because it’s not in their backyard?

Originally published May 7, 2018 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel