The Sentinel and Register-Pajaronian published an identical letter, headlined respectively “Are Koch brothers behind rail-trail opposition?” and “Big money trying to kill rail trail”. A similarly themed letter, “Conspiracy Theory”, 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, 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.
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 to that end and its’ website is an organ of rail trail information. It has several million dollars in matching grants tied to the RTC. The institutions are married; the Land Trust’s popular wildlife underpass on highway 17 depends on the RTC match.
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. $22,974,831 of Ecology Action’s income of $23,309,915 was government grants in 2016. 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.
Friends of the Rail Trail is led by Mark Mesiti-Miller, the principal emeritus of MME Civil and Structural Engineering (Mesiti-Miller Engineering). M-ME.com lists the “Santa Cruz Rail Trail” as one of their engineering projects. Mesiti-Miller is also on the executive committee of the Sierra Club, which endorsed the rail with trail. Mesiti-Miller is co-principal with Donna Murphy of DM5 consulting, according to their respective Linked-In pages, and Donna Murphy is chair of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.
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.
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”. “Placarded” refers to the hazardous material placard on these tank cars. About 81 tank cars will fit on a mile of track.
The current rail contract between the RTC and Progressive Rail forbids “material interference with freight”, 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 “. 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.
The rollback of fuel efficiency standards proposed by the Trump administration is aimed at California’s standards 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 and is on the national staff at NEED.org. 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 “. The “balanced” curriculum misses discussing climate change and greenhouse gasses. Did you know that “Water vapor is the most common greenhouse gas”? The top 14 contributions to NEED last year range from $68,000 to $492,895; members of the Board of Directors include BP, Phillips 66, and Exelon. 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?