Another look at rail line from Humboldt to Sacramento Valley

RailRoad

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Although restoring rail service to Humboldt County was deemed “likely to be both high cost and high risk” in a 2013 feasibility study, rail enthusiasts are optimistic that a new study will paint a much rosier picture of building a line from Humboldt Bay to the Sacramento Valley.

The Trinity County Transportation Committee recently obtained a $276,000 Sustainable Transportation Planning Grant from the California Department of Transportation to create what’s being called the Upstate Railconnect Feasibility Study.

“The Upstate California Railconnect Feasibility Study will provide public decision-makers and private investors with a package of information on which to make informed investment and business decisions regarding a new rail line connecting Humboldt Bay’s deepwater seaport with a national rail connection in the Sacramento Valley,” stated Trinity County Supervisor John Fenley in a press release announcing the grant.

Rick Tippett

Rick Tippett

“The feasibility study will include information on potential rail routes, additional uses of the rail corridor (e.g. trail, passenger service, redundant fiber optic, etc), economic benefits, environmental and cultural impacts, rail infrastructure design considerations, timeline and costs to develop, and more,” states the press release.

Although a previous study showed that building an east-west railroad, or even restoring the existing line from Eureka to Windsor, was highly questionable from an economic point of view, rail enthusiasts are optimistic about the proposed line’s feasibility.

“A new rail line connecting Humboldt Bay’s seaport with the national rail system in the Sacramento Valley has the potential to be a generational social and economic game-changer for Northwestern (Upstate) California, including Trinity County,” said Rick Tippett, the executive director of the Trinity commission, in a press release announcing the grant award.

“Northern California faces a variety of social, environmental and economic challenges that would be improved by the fuller utilization of the seaport at Humboldt Bay and surrounding areas,” Tippett stated. “To better utilize this port, Caltrans is modernizing Highway 299 and the shipping channels have been deepened. Rail is the only freight transportation mode missing. Exploring feasibility of such a rail connection the port and interior areas is what is proposed to be addressed by the grant.”

Although Tippett expressed optimism about the results of the feasibility study in the press release, he was much more measured during a presentation July 27 before the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group at the Samoa Cookhouse in Samoa.

Tippett told the crowd of about 60 who filled the Hammond Room that the study would be an unbiased analysis of the facts.

He explained that this would not be “a study to show/prove that a rail line is feasible.” Rather, he said, it is a study to determine the feasibility of constructing a new rail line.

“We know that there will be a large group that will not like the results, but will accept the conclusion based on the goals of being factual, transparent and inclusive,” Tippett said.
The Trinity commission will solicit proposals from railroad consultants and must award a contract to complete the study by May 17, 2017. There will be public hearings, and the final study will be completed by June 30, 2019.

The feasibility study would come on the heels of the 2013 study, which showed that rail service is highly unlikely.

That study, completed in August 2013, was prepared by BST Associates and Burgel Rail Group for the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. Jack Crider, executive director of the harbor district, said his agency paid $20,000 for the study.

The cost of building a railroad from Humboldt Bay to the Sacramento Valley would be from $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion, according to the Humboldt Bay Alternative Rail Corridor Concept Level Construction Cost and Revenue Analysis.

The cost of maintaining the line would be $18 million to $20 million a year. Those costs do not include environmental mitigations, and they assume that the project will be built in three years.

These high costs mean that the rail line needs to generate a massive amount of revenue to break even. It would have to transport about 11.5 million to 18.5 metric tons of cargo a year, which would translate into three to five full trains a day transporting goods.

“Data from the Pacific Maritime Association shows that the level of cargo needed for an east/west line ... would be among the largest bulk export volumes on the West Coast ... The Columbia River ports of Portland, Oregon and Kalama, Washington have each exported an average of more than 10 million tons of dry bulk commodities per year in recent years. Long Beach exported approximately nine million tons in 2012, but since 2000 no other port has exported more than eight million tons of dry bulk commodities per year,” the report states.

The report’s conclusion makes the future of rail appear bleak.

“A rail line to Humboldt County would face strong competition from existing ports, primarily those on the U.S. West Coast. Humboldt County would face several competitive disadvantages relative to these other ports, including that rail traffic would need to generate sufficient net revenue to finance the construction of a rail line, and the lack of a rail distance advantage,” the report states.

“In addition to the lack of rail infrastructure, waterborne exports of large volumes of bulk commodities would likely require substantial investments in new cargo terminals. Also, the Humboldt navigation channel is not as deep as that at most of the competing ports, which would also require a substantial investment. In conclusion, development of rail service to Humboldt County is likely to be both high cost and high risk,” the report states.

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