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North Coast Railroad Authority dreaming vs everybody else

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  • 7/5 North Coast Journal
    Published Thursday, July 5, 2007, in the North Coast Journal (Humbolt County) The Squeeze Why railroad dreamers will kill the Eureka-Arcata trail By Hank Sims
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 15, 2007
      Published Thursday, July 5, 2007, in the North Coast Journal (Humbolt County)

      The Squeeze

      Why railroad dreamers will kill the Eureka-Arcata trail

      By Hank Sims

      A couple of weeks ago, one of the many small intergovernmental chat
      shops that hammer out Humboldt County public policy behind the scenes
      met for the final time. This particular working group had been
      meeting for over a year. Its goal was to study ways to build a hiking
      and biking trail between Eureka and Arcata -- the "Bay Trail." People
      had been talking about such a trail for many years. Now they were all
      at the table: representatives from the cities of Eureka and Arcata,
      the county of Humboldt, the Humboldt County Association of
      Governments, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District. Bicycle and trail
      advocacy groups, as well as other interested parties, were invited to
      attend. The general public was not.

      At this meeting, which took place at a small conference center in
      Arcata's Redwood Park, the working group would receive the fruits of
      its labor. Several months ago, it had found the money to commission a
      consulting firm called Alta Planning, which specializes in trail
      development, to study different ways to route and build the Bay Trail.
      Now the consultants would present their initial findings.

      The Bay Trail is a difficult proposition, because there simply isn't
      much room to build in the most logical corridor -- on the bay side of
      Highway 101. At some points, there is only a small sliver of land
      between the freeway and the water, and much of that land is taken up
      by a corridor owned by another public agency, the North Coast Railroad
      Authority. In one way or another, the trail would, in all likelihood,
      have to cross the authority's right-of-way, which has not been used
      for almost 10 years.

      The consultants presented their initial findings. One option, which
      involved Caltrans altering the highway to some degree, would cost
      around $45 million. Another option, which would rebuild the
      railroad's degraded infrastructural so that it could accommodate
      trains and pedestrians, would cost around $31 million. A third option
      -- removing the railroad for the time being and putting the trail in
      its place -- would cost $14.5 million. That last figure would include
      the cost of putting the tracks back when the railroad was ready to run
      again.

      According to several people at the meeting, Mike Wilson, who
      represents the Arcata area on the Harbor District, questioned the
      consultant about the final option. What if the costs of putting the
      tracks back were taken out of the equation? What if that were
      accounted for separately? The consultant wasn?t certain, but he
      estimated that the trail in that case would cost only about $5
      million.

      Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley, who sits on the NCRA's board
      of directors, argued that it didn't make much sense to look at the
      cheap option. Who would give money to build a trail when the trail
      would have to be rolled up as soon as rail service to Humboldt County
      is restored? The railroad authority's forecast was that trains would
      be rolling down local tracks in just four years' time -- by 2011.

      The mention of this date so soon in the future seemed to agitate
      Wilson. "No one in this room believes that," he said. At which point
      a stony silence filled the air.

      The North Coast Railroad Authority, a public agency, an arm of the
      state of California, has been dinking around with the old
      Humboldt-to-Bay Area railroad line for 15 years now, consuming tens of
      millions of dollars in public funds and accomplishing very little.
      It's been six years since the NCRA has run any trains at all, nearly a
      decade since the last train made it to Humboldt County.

      But hope springs eternal in the railroad world, and the NCRA and its
      supporters, armed with a sheaf of fanciful dates and numbers -- trains
      to Humboldt by 2011! -- have secured themselves a solid place in the
      hearts and minds of local policymakers, from members of local city
      councils all the way up to our elected representatives in Sacramento
      and Washington. And the authority has received many boosts of late.
      For the first time in years its coffers have been filled, thanks to
      infusions of public money. It's been a long time since its prospects
      have looked so bright.

      If that's the case, though, it's only because the authority has so far
      been able to ignore all the many problems raised by its drive to
      restore the rails. That blessed state will not last forever. But it
      will certainly last long enough for the authority to accomplish one
      thing -- dragging the Bay Trail into a bureaucratic quagmire almost as
      impossible as its own.


      No one disagrees that the Bay Trail, whatever form it takes, is a
      difficult project. If the trail is ever built, someone -- some agency
      -- will take on the financial obligation of maintaining it, which is
      not completely insignificant. "The funding is a challenge, any way
      you slice it," said Jennifer Rice of the Redwood Community Action
      Agency last week. "It's going to require a lot of creativity and
      commitment to make it happen."

      Still, it would be hard to find anyone who would argue that the trail
      would be a whole lot more doable if the initial costs were in the $5
      million range, rather than the $30 million range. But people like
      Rice, who six years ago led a comprehensive study on the potential for
      a new trail system in the Humboldt Bay area, have to accept that the
      political reality, as evidenced by Woolley's comments at the working
      group meeting: The North Coast Railroad Authority is not going to hand
      over the keys to its publicly owned right-of-way, however painful that
      may be.

      "We're open to all options, but we're just really concerned," said
      Chris Rall of Green Wheels, an alternative transportation advocacy
      group based in Arcata, last week. "At the time when we were more
      optimistic, we thought maybe it would cost twice as much to put the
      trail beside the rail. But now it's looking more like five times as
      much. And it concerns us that it's going to take a long time to find
      the money to build this sort of trail."

      At the same time, though, the trail would bring immediate benefits to
      Humboldt County. According to Alta Planning's initial report, the
      trail would be a tourist draw as well as an alternate form of
      transportation down the Eureka-Arcata corridor, where no good options
      for bicycles or pedestrians exist. The consultants estimated that the
      trail would give a direct $3.8 million boost to the local economy.

      From a regional perspective, a Bay Trail would fill in a large gap of
      the California Coastal Trail, an incomplete project with solid support
      from the California Coastal Conservancy and other agencies. It could
      link up to the Arcata-to-Westhaven Hammond Trail in the north,
      providing a bicycle route from Eureka all the way to Moonstone Beach.
      It could someday link up with the still-unfinished Annie and Mary
      Trail, which will run from Arcata to Blue Lake. If the railroad were
      ever to give up its quest to reestablish train service and turn the
      tracks over to trail usage, as has been done in many other
      "railbanking" projects around the country, people could realistically
      dream about a system of paths that would run from Scotia north, and
      around Humboldt Bay to Fairhaven.

      But the railroad authority, which took over the struggling old
      Northwestern Pacific line in 1992 by an act of the state legislature,
      is maintaining the position it has held ever since the Federal
      Railroad Administration shut down the line in 1998. It plans to
      reopen the railroad, including the geologically unstable Eel River
      Canyon section of the line that links the tracks in northern Humboldt
      to the south end of the railroad, which runs from Willits south to the
      Bay Area. (See "Going Nowhere," May 29, 2003.) No one knows how much
      reopening that particular stretch -- which is home to perennial
      slides, slip-outs and tunnel failure -- will cost; estimates range
      from $150 million up, and no one is quite sure where the money will
      come from.

      Still, the authority will soon be commissioning an environmental
      impact report for the reopening of the Eel River Canyon, and looking
      to develop a business plan that will make rail service all the way to
      Humboldt Bay an economically feasible undertaking. And that's when
      its real problems will begin.


      The North Coast Railroad Authority is in an awkward bind. First of
      all, given the decline of the timber industry, it has to invent
      freight to ship in order to justify its existence.

      When the NCRA is in Sacramento, it has to demonstrate that this
      potential freight is so massive that it will be possible to
      financially overcome the line's chronic, costly infrastructure
      problems, especially in the Eel River Canyon. So in February of last
      year, it wrote up a "strategic plan" to present to the California
      Transportation Commission. The goal of the strategic plan was to
      convince the CTC to release some $43 million in funds that had been
      allocated to the authority in 2000, right before the California budget
      collapsed. When the budget crisis hit, the NCRA fell to the bottom of
      the CTC's priorities. It didn't help that the commission had
      previously raised serious questions about the authority's accounting
      methods, earning it a designation as a "high-risk grantee." But the
      worst of the crisis had largely passed by last year, so in March 2006
      the authority attended the CTC's monthly meeting armed with its new
      plan, and there it made its pitch.

      The railroad's last comprehensive financial forecast, written by a
      consulting firm called PB Ports and Marine in 2002, showed that the
      railroad most likely stood to lose around $4 million per year, even
      after the line was brought back into service. But the NCRA brought
      new numbers to the CTC. The new strategic plan now said that the
      railroad could ship 6 million tons of crushed rock per year -- a
      little over 11 tons per minute, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year --
      from a moribund quarry partially owned by the authority in the heart
      of the Eel River Canyon, at Island Mountain. The plan noted that this
      would result in 40,000 rail cars of material per year, or 110 cars per
      day, every day of the week. The quarrying would result in a $20
      million annual revenue stream for the authority.

      But there was more. In addition, the authority said that it stood to
      gain $130 million per year from a revamped shipping operation at the
      Port of Humboldt Bay (see this week's "Town Dandy"). According to
      "one estimate," the railroad could ship 1,000 freight containers per
      day, five days a week, from a bustling new container port on the Samoa
      peninsula. Shippers would pay $1,000 per container to have their
      goods transported from dockside to the national rail network. While
      the CTC had questions, the presentation did the trick. It began
      releasing money to the NCRA in dribs and drabs, allowing it to begin
      work restoring the south end of the line and planning for operations
      on the north end.

      But that's where the second of the railroad's troubles came into
      play. Suddenly the authority had to convince the public that it didn't
      really mean any of it. That's the second and more difficult half of
      its bind.

      When the February 2006 strategic plan was released to the public, some
      people took an interest. The first group to respond was the watershed
      watchdog organization known as Friends of the Eel, based in
      Garberville. When the group's executive director, Nadananda, heard of
      plans for a massive new quarry on the banks of the federally
      designated Wild and Scenic Eel River, she sounded the alarm, railing
      against the plan in the group's newsletter and notifying environmental
      groups in the Bay Area (see "Hear that train a-comin," June 8, 2006).

      What's more, it caused some port-watchers to lift their eyebrows and
      wonder what shipper would pay a $1 million-per-day premium to move
      goods from a purely hypothetical container facility on Humboldt Bay,
      down the long, slow tracks of the Eel River Canyon, a several-day
      journey from here to the Bay Area, only to arrive at one of the
      greatest natural harbors on Earth. Yes, the trade between China and
      the West Coast of the United States is booming and many West Coast
      ports are at capacity, but is that really the most sensible option,
      from a business perspective? And does the environmentally conscious
      constituency around Humboldt Bay really want a big new container port,
      with all of its associated impacts in and around the bay?

      After the CTC loosened its purse strings, and after such opposition
      began to raise its head, the NCRA released several updates to its
      strategic plan, including one in February of this year. These updates
      are far more limited in scope. The February 2007 update focuses
      mainly on a proposed timeline of work. Specific operations, such as
      the Island Mountain quarry and the Port of Humboldt Bay, are not
      mentioned. With the CTC funding in hand, the NCRA now insists that
      any discussion of specific work programs is premature.

      "For anybody who wants to paint a picture, I see where it would be a
      problem," said Mitch Stogner, the NCRA's executive director, from his
      office in Ukiah Monday. "As a factual matter, it's not a problem. As
      a factual matter, what's on the table is our February '07 strategic
      plan. What was said prior to that, based on NCRA's efforts to get the
      CTC to release funding, is not what's on the table."

      However, as noted above, the February 2007 document is an "update" to
      the earlier plan, not a brand-new plan of its own. It complements the
      earlier plan; it doesn't contradict it. It simply lays out a schedule
      by which the railroad will reopen in stages, culminating with the 2011
      return to Humboldt Bay.


      One useful way to look at the rail-trail standoff is generationally.
      The most prominent people working for a Bay Trail -- Mike Wilson,
      Jennifer Rice, Chris Rall -- are relatively young. All of them are in
      their 30s, and all of them have roots in Arcata. They all went to
      Humboldt State. They're all politically active. Rice was the
      university's "woman of the year" when she was a student there, and was
      active in student government. Wilson represents the city on the
      Harbor District. Rall and his colleagues in Green Wheels, an
      organization born at HSU, are playing a larger role in debates over
      transportation issues.

      On the other side of the aisle, the coalition backing the railroad is
      an odd one, made up of a number of disparate factions -- lots of
      government people, some industry people, some labor people, some grown
      men who simply never outgrew their boyish fascination with big,
      powerful machines. But the most important bloc behind the railroad,
      at least in Humboldt County, has been the up-from-hippie generation
      that came to power in Arcata 30-odd years ago, and which has held on
      to power ever since. This generation -- which includes Woolley,
      former state Senator Wes Chesbro and former Assemblyman Dan Hauser,
      who served as NCRA's executive director for several years in the '90s
      -- made its bones in the fight to protect Arcata from the impacts of a
      freeway bypass, and, especially, in the battle to build the Arcata
      Marsh, a sewage treatment facility grounded in low-impact technology
      that also reclaimed a big chunk of land for wildlife habitat.

      It's not easy to explain how this generation, with its impeccable
      environmental credentials, with its reputation for getting things
      done, came to find itself in the curious position it now occupies as
      regards the railroad. Not only do the leading members of the Marsh
      Generation not oppose a massive new rock quarry on the banks of the
      Eel River, some of them, at least, are counting on its success. Not
      only do they not oppose the industrialization of Humboldt Bay, either
      on the grounds of practicality or desirability, some of them, at
      least, are out stumping for a plan that -- taken at face value --
      would theoretically send some 20 diesel-spewing trains per day, each
      of them pulling 50 cars, through the very heart of the marsh itself,
      to say nothing of Eureka's Old Town. This is the priority. The Bay
      Trail, a project that would complement the marsh perfectly, must come
      second.

      Speaking from Sacramento, where he was lobbying the legislature on
      railroad-related matters (among other things), Woolley said last week
      that perhaps the younger generation simply wasn't used to seeing
      trains in Humboldt County, and was therefore unnecessarily nervous
      about the prospect.

      "We all have been around during the time when the train was running,
      and also when it hasn't been," he said of himself and his
      cohort. "We're also aware of environmental and economic factors in
      every decision we make."

      He added that when the time comes, the state-mandated process for
      addressing environmental concerns on the north end of the line -- the
      EIR the authority will eventually undertake -- will provide ample
      opportunity for decision-makers and the public to scrutinize the
      impact of the quarry and the harbor, and on freight passage around the
      bay.

      Woolley also said that passenger service around Humboldt County may
      someday be feasible, despite this area's sparse, scattered population.
      Given rising fuel costs, who knows what could happen in 15 or 20
      years? "But the key to that is keeping the railroad as a viable
      option," he said.

      In the meanwhile, and until proven otherwise, he and other members of
      the Marsh Generation are sticking solidly to their efforts to reopen
      the railroad. When Chris Rall wrote up his impressions of the final
      meeting of the trails working group for the Arcata Eye, Dan Hauser,
      now retired from his last job as Arcata's city manager, was quick to
      quash his hopes.

      "It would require an act of the Legislature and the Governor's
      signature to modify that NCRA mandate," Hauser wrote in a letter to
      the paper. "I strongly suggest that Mr. Rall and the other trail
      advocates forget about removing the rail and concentrate on the other
      alternatives."


      Someday, perhaps far in the future, if and when the railroad ever
      starts running trains, Hauser's words may prove prophetic. Since the
      NCRA has for most of its life existed solely in the subjunctive tense,
      there has been little political opposition to it. Taxpayers' groups
      have occasionally decried the authority as a waste of public dollars,
      but the powers-that-be in Sacramento have not heeded their call.

      Now the political equation seems to be shifting, in such a way that
      the possibility of legislative action to change the NCRA's mandate is
      not entirely unthinkable. Even in inaction, the NCRA is starting to
      get in the way of things. The Bay Trail is one example, though one
      that is unlikely to spark any significant statewide revolt.

      More problematically, the inconsistencies in the NCRA's plans are just
      starting to be felt at the south end of the line, in Sonoma and Marin
      counties. For many years, the citizens of those counties have been
      looking at developing intercity passenger service along the same rail
      corridor that the NCRA will use to ship freight. The public agency
      charged with developing such a service -- called Sonoma-Marin Area
      Rail Transit (SMART) -- will be placing a sales tax measure to fund it
      on the ballot in 2008. (The measure will require a 2/3 vote for
      passage; a similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2006.) SMART is
      especially popular in Sonoma County, where severe traffic congestion
      is a grim fact of life.

      But when people in Marin County began to take notice of the NCRA's
      freight projections along the same corridor, some of them grew
      concerned. SMART had published an environmental impact report for its
      project in June 2006, a few months after the NCRA had published its
      strategic plan. But the section of the SMART document that addressed
      the impact of NCRA freight service on its proposed operations seemed
      to differ significantly from what the authority was telling state
      government. According to SMART, the NCRA planned to run only six
      12-car trains per week, coming and going. This wasn't only manifestly
      insufficient to account for all the freight the authority anticipated
      from the quarry and the port; it didn't seem to be enough to account
      for all the other traffic the authority hoped to ship purely on the
      south end of the line. In fact, in the strategic plan the authority
      envisioned hauling 12 cars of garbage per day out of Sonoma County, in
      addition to other south end traffic. This inconsistency led Marin
      County to claim two seats on the NCRA board of directors earlier this
      year -- seats that had been carved out by the agency long ago, but
      which Marin had hitherto shown no interest in.

      On June 20 of this year, the City of Novato wrote to SMART to ask the
      agency to supplement its environmental impact report with updated
      figures for NCRA freight operations. In a letter to SMART dated June
      20, Novato City Manager Daniel E. Keen wrote that Novato was
      "extremely concerned" about the impacts -- noise, traffic, pollution
      -- of large-scale freight operations. The city had recently learned
      that the NCRA had near-term plans to run much larger trains on the
      tracks that run through Novato, Keen wrote -- 32 trains per week, some
      of them up to 60 cars in length. These figures came directly from a
      memo that Stogner wrote to the NCRA board of directors at the end of
      May. But three weeks later, when Stogner wrote to SMART to address
      the confusion, he explained that it would be unnecessary for the
      transit agency to update its environmental impact report: "The only
      difference is that we now estimate six 15-car trains per week rather
      than our original estimate of six 12-car trains per week." Any other
      operations were purely speculative, Stogner wrote.

      Novato City Councilmember Jim Leland is one of the two Marin
      representatives recently appointed to the board of the NCRA. He said
      last week that his goal in joining the NCRA board was to bring some
      clarity to the project. "When the number dances back and forth
      between six trains a week and 30, those are big swings," he said.
      "That doesn't fly down here in Marin County. All these shenanigans
      run the risk of turning some environmental organizations against the
      whole thing." (And those 30 trains per week don't even begin to take
      into account any of the massive rock and container freight that will
      supposedly be coming down through Novato from north of Willits -- by
      2011, theoretically.)

      Leland noted that the Novato City Council is slated to address the
      matter again on July 19, and that there is a public forum on the
      matter scheduled for July 31. He said that his constituents are
      starting to demand answers. And some are starting to think beyond
      freight service, he added. If there were no freight operations at
      all, the thinking goes, SMART might be able to use the corridor to
      develop an electric-powered light rail system rather than the diesel
      engines it now proposes to use.

      "There's a whole range of views starting to surface now that there's a
      visible community dialog about freight and passenger service," Leland
      said.


      For the time being, though, the railroad can proceed as if such issues
      didn't exist. An uprising in the populous, wealthy places at the
      south end; a lawsuit over the Island Mountain quarry; the chance that
      international shippers might not consider Humboldt Bay such an
      attractive port, or that Humboldt County citizens wouldn't want such a
      port anyway -- they all fall into the same category. As long as the
      railroad's plans continue to exist only in the realm of speculation,
      there are no downsides. And so state and federal money can continue
      to flow to the authority, and the contradictions looming within the
      NCRA's plans can be safely ignored. Out of sight, out of mind -- at
      least for the time being, until the authority develops a solid plan
      for the north end of the line.

      But that should be plenty of time to bog down any momentum the Bay
      Trail has developed. After receiving the preliminary Alta Planning
      report, Woolley and Arcata City Councilmember Mark Wheetley met with
      local Caltrans officials on a fact-finding mission. Their goal was to
      lay the groundwork for an expansion of Bay Trail options -- to recast
      the Alta report as the beginning of a discussion, rather than a plan
      of action. What they are pushing for now is an expanded look at trail
      options, a look that will consider placing the Bay Trail on the east
      side of Highway 101 and across the bridge, down the Samoa Peninsula.

      "I'm saying we can continue to look," said Wheetley, who worked on the
      Marsh project as an HSU student. "You don't build the $40 million
      option when you haven't looked at the $10 million one."

      In fact, the east side and Samoa options were looked at in the process
      of developing the 2001 Bay Trail feasibility study, the one that
      Jennifer Rice worked on. At the time, it was determined that there
      were serious constraints to both options. On the Samoa side, for
      instance, it would be difficult and expensive to retrofit the numerous
      bridges that cross various sloughs. But last week Rice acknowledged
      that the Alta study was limited to studying only the west side of
      Highway 101, mostly because of the limited amount of funds available
      to pay the consultants.

      In any event, even without additional studies, the trail can probably
      safely be considered a dead letter for the time being. A (roughly)
      $30 million project is orders of magnitude more difficult than a
      (roughly) $5 million project, and the political grasp of the railroad
      backers is such that the latter option -- the conversion of the fallow
      right-of-way to productive use -- will be promptly round-filed as soon
      as the final Alta Planning report is released, which should be
      sometime this month.

      Asked to gaze into his crystal ball last week, Mike Buettner, a member
      of an advocacy group called Trails Trust of Humboldt Bay who was at
      the meeting when Woolley and Wilson clashed, didn't find much cause
      for optimism -- neither for the railroad, nor for the Bay Trail.

      "They'll sidetrack the discussion and talk about running it along the
      east side or through Samoa, and they'll talk about it for years,"
      Buettner said. "The trail won't get done, and the train won't come
      back."
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