HUMBOLDT – At the final meeting of the North Coast Railroad Authority’s (NCRA) Humboldt Bay Corridor Subcommittee, rail advocates and trail advocates were told that if division between them persists, controversy will prevent investment in both aims.
The subcommittee met for the third time on Oct. 26 at Eureka City Hall and after a series of presentations related to rail redevelopment, its members urged those in the audience to stop opposing each other and collaborate on a plan to develop both rail and trail.
Rees Hughes of the Bay Trail Advocates group gave the final presentation, which triggered a conversation on the political aspects of using the NCRA’s rail property.
Hughes noted that his group’s advocacy led to the formation of the subcommittee, though it had first been proposed as a subcommittee to make recommendations on railbanking the line. Doing that would allow a multi-use trail to be built over the tracks with the agreement that it would be removed once rail operations resume.
With that approach, the rail infrastructure would be put to use during the presumably long wait for rail operations to resume. “We need and we want a trail to connect our two largest population centers, for transportation and recreational purposes,” said Hughes. “And the NCRA happens to own and control the least expensive and most logical right of way where the trail can be built.”
Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen, one of three NCRA boardmembers who compose the subcommittee, said railbanking was considered by his board and “even with three boardmembers not present, it was not able to garner a majority – I don’t see that changing.”
Rail supporters and trail advocates are at odds, sometimes bitterly, and McCowen recommended they collaborate instead. “If people want to advocate for rail only, if they want to advocate for trail only – that increases the odds that we get nothing,” he said.
“If there’s true consensus, then you can get the support of your state and federal legislators,” McCowen continued. “But if there’s no community consensus, your state legislators and federal legislators won’t stick their necks out – they’ll just keep watching the fur fly”
Jan Kraepelien, an advocate of studying the feasibility of an east-west rail line, called attention to the number of groups and agencies that support doing the study and asked the subcommittee members if they also support it.
“I don’t want to go there, I’m trying to do something else here,” said Subcommittee Member Bill Kier. “You’re basically pushing us into the east-west rail camp and we’ve got plenty of work to do.”
Kier and McCowen said the NCRA’s lack of funding is an over-riding problem that is visible when one looks at the condition of the Humboldt Bay rail corridor.
Tom Mattson, the county’s public works director, said there are multiple issues to deal with in upgrading the corridor and division makes the effort less effective. “We’re going to go nowhere if we continue to fight,” he added. “Once we agree that we need the highway, we need a trail and we need the rail, then we will move forward but if we keep trying to move forward separately, by taking somebody else’s assets and turning it into something else, we’re not going to move forward.”
He said that having a trail isn’t simply a matter of building one. “The issue is who owns it and who operates it – nobody’s going there because nobody has the money to own and operate the trail,” Mattson continued. But he said that if a percentage of rail profits could pay for it, he’d recommend that the county “take the lead in getting that trail built.”
McCowen concluded the meeting by saying, “I really hope that what we’re seeing is the nucleus of the community coming together and agreeing that the best way to get any of what we want is to try to get all of what we want and to try and move forward together.”
County Supervisor and NCRA Chairman Clif Clendenen, the third member of the subcommittee, was absent due to illness.
Earlier, John Williams of Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company, the NCRA’s rail operator, said it will cost at least $30 million to rehab the rail line from South Fork to Samoa, not including permitting costs.
A passenger excursion train was once operated and Williams believes a market for it is still here. Freight hauling is also viable if there’s interaction between barges and trains, he said.
But he added that there won’t be enough profit to cover high debt payments so funding would have to be from low-interest loans or grants. Williams has been criticized for not having a business plan for the bay line but he said funding sources have to be secured before one is drafted.
“Until NCRA and NWP can go to the shipping community and say, ‘We can get our hands on X millions of dollars,’ that’s when you do the business plan,” Williams said.
Other presentations were from the Timber Heritage Association, Caltrans and the East West Rail Advocates group.
The NCRA board will consider the reports and data related to the subcommittee’s work at its Nov. 14 meeting in Eureka.