HUMBOLDT – East-west railroad advocates have gained key support, as the Board of Supervisors has approved joining a partnership in pursuit of a rail feasibility study.
But Supervisor Mark Lovelace has noted that any eastern route would go through Arcata and he asked that the City be notified and tapped for feedback.
The unanimous vote to support a study sends less of a message than it would have if county funding for it was also approved. Still, rail development supporters at the Aug. 28 supervisors meeting applauded when the vote was made.
It directs county staff to return with a resolution defining the county’s membership in a committee that will include other supporters of doing a study, including Trinity and Tehema counties, the cities of Eureka, Fortuna and Rio Dell and the Wiyot tribe.
If done, the study will assess the engineering and land ownership aspects of developing a 125-mile railroad route linking Humboldt Bay to national railroad connections near Red Bluff. Eureka is the lead agency for the effort and David Tyson, its soon-to-retire city manager, told supervisors that the bay is at only 10 percent of its cargo capacity.
The primary reason why is lack of a railroad link, Tyson continued.
Later, Lovelace asked if eminent domain would be necessary to secure easements for the rail route. Tyson said a feasibility study would help determine that.
Then Lovelace noted that land in Arcata and perhaps Blue Lake would be needed for right of ways. He questioned why their governments haven’t been given similar presentations. “Is there a reason why those are last when it seems like they’re the most impacted?” he asked.
Tyson said no route has been selected and the study would assess likely ones. He said he’s made “overtures” to city managers in Arcata and Blue Lake and they haven’t asked for presentations but “we have provided information to those communities about this.”
Prior to that exchange, Tyson said Eureka was “able to secure” $80 million in funding for reviving the northern segment of the North Coast Railroad Authority line when the Tycomm fiber optic company showed interest in relocating here.
That deal fell through due to “economic reasons,” Tyson continued, but he said in the years since, he’s worked on about a half-dozen similar deals, including a recent one with the U.S. Gypsum Company. “We were in competition with the Port of Stockton and that’s ultimately where they chose to locate,” said Tyson.
A rail link would give Humboldt a competitive edge, he told supervisors.
During public comment, members of the recently-formed East-West Rail Advocates group said a rail connection is key to developing the area’s economy and creating jobs. Supervisor Rex Bohn agreed.
He recalled unloading shipments of frozen orange juice from Florida when the former rail line was running. Powdered milk was a railroaded export item back then and Bohn said that without rail, it is now trucked to distant rail conduits, a transfer which results in some product loss.
“We’ve lost that competitive spirit because we can’t put it on a rail,” he continued.
Lovelace is a self-described railroad skeptic and he said there is no marketing data to back up the economic development claims. “Some of the stuff that’s been reported, in terms of the past, has been inquiries and nothing more,” he said. “To me, when we start looking at this, something other than anecdotes is really critical.”
Board Chair Virginia Bass was formerly Eureka’s mayor and she said she’s seen firsthand how lack of rail can block new business opportunities. “I know it seems anecdotal if you haven’t been there,” she said. “Through my experience with the City of Eureka – I was there when Tycomm went away after two years of working with them and there was also a defense contractor, so I have personal experience seeing these.”
Supervisor Clif Clendenen is the county’s NCRA rep and he’s said that an east-west route would link with the agency’s Humboldt Bay infrastructure, making it more valuable.
Lovelace was the only supervisor to express doubt but he said he could join the unanimous vote because it didn’t involve any spending. He also said that railroad development comprises only one of 18 community action teams that are part of the county’s economic strategy and wants to “make sure this isn’t pre-judging.”