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