Judge Says Rail Repairs Didn’t Harm Wetlands

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — A state judge ruled against an environmental group’s objections to repairs to a rail line, paving the way for possible rail service between two Monterey Bay communities afflicted with routine traffic congestion.

Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick found that Santa Cruz County Greenway failed to prove that the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) fell short of its environmental responsibilities when it repaired two sections of rail line following destructive storms in 2017.

“Petitioner has failed to meet its burden to establish that ‘unusual circumstances’ exist, or that the project will have significant environmental effects, so as to defeat application of the categorical exemption,” Burdick wrote in the ruling.

The fight between Greenway and the RTC was a procedural one that arose amid a broader squabble about transportation in a county choked with frequent congestion in its main thoroughfare — Highway 1 between Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

Due to high housing prices in Santa Cruz, many workers commute from Watsonville, and the two-lane highway between the cities is often snarled with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

As a potential solution, the RTC proposed the construction of a pedestrian/bicycle trail to run alongside the traditional railroad right of way that used to operate in the early 20th century.

The RTC would also like to resurrect rail service on the line, beginning with freight service and transitioning into the possibility of passenger rail later.

Greenway supports the pedestrian/bicycle portion of the plan but opposes the rail component.

“A multi-use path for pedestrians, bikes and electric bikes is the best use of the rail corridor and a train does not deliver the ridership, safety, or other benefits to justify its enormous cost,” the organization wrote in its latest petition opposing rail that the organization says garnered 10,000 signatures.

The issue has proved particularly contentious for the relatively quiet beach community and surf town about 75 miles from San Francisco on California’s Central Coast.

In July of last year, Greenway sued the RTC, claiming repairs it conducted along the rail line after storms struck the region in the beginning of 2017 were illegal because they failed to undertake the necessary environmental review mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The RTC said it was repairing the line under categorical exemptions spelled out in California’s environmental laws.

Greenway then argued those exemptions did not apply because of “unusual circumstances” – namely that the repairs took place in an environmentally sensitive area of wetlands and sloughs.

Burdick disagreed.

“Respondent has pointed to evidence in the record which support the finding that unusual circumstances do not exist,” he wrote.

The RTC celebrated the decision on Friday.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision and look forward to getting back to work to repair the line and restoring in full this valuable resource to the community,” RTC Executive Director Guy Preston said.

Greenway did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.

It is unlikely the ruling will alleviate the contention surrounding the rail trail idea in Santa Cruz County, as many public meetings, environmental reviews and agency approvals must occur before the first train can connect passengers from Watsonville to Santa Cruz.

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