Federal bill good news for railroad

By QUINCY CROMER/The Daily Journal

The $286 billion Transportation Equity Act approved by Congress last week includes two provisions for the North Coast Railroad Authority: $12 million in loan forgiveness and some $8.6 million of unused funding.

The $12 million loan was initially used to purchase the south portion of the railroad in 1996, NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner said, and the measure specifically names NCRA as the lead agency to accept $8.6 million in unused money that was approved in transportation funding from previous years.

"That loan was used to acquire the southern half of the railroad from Willits to the rail interchange. The authority to do it was included in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 and the actual transaction took place in 1996," Stogner said.

Designating NCRA for the $8.6 million in Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act funds from 1996 should compel the Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans to allocate the funds, Stogner added.

State Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, has also presented a bill to reallocate the money set aside to repay the loan. There was some $5.5 million set aside in the Local Agency Investment fund in the State Treasury, accruing interest for the loan, which can now be reallocated to NCRA with the forgiveness of the $12 million loan, Stogner said.

"What the Chesbro bill does is for the first time gives NCRA a predictable revenue source. It is hard to express how important that is. If you are running any agency or business, it is important to have a predictable source of agency funding," he said.

Senate Bill 792 has passed the state Senate, the State Policy Committee and is in the last stage of Assembly Appropriations, Stogner said, and will be considered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September.

"It represents the future. It allows us to resolve the environmental consent decree, which is this court-mandated environmental cleanup that we have to do. We have done the surface cleanup on nine rail yards, and the Chesbro bill will allow us to complete that work," Stogner added.

The funds set aside to repay the loan will be reallocated to complete the cleanup of rail yards, cover agency expenses associated with managing more than 100 crossing leases, address emergency right-of-way needs, managing capital repair grants, managing the Consent Decree cleanup and preparing for and eventually overseeing rail operations, Stogner said.

"There will be $2 million that we can use to keep our agency operating. That means we can manage the capital grants, manage the consent decree, we can address right-of-way issues and it will allow us to prepare for an operator, which is ultimately the goal that we all seek, to get trains operating," he said.

With the eventual reopening of railways through Northern California and Mendocino County, Stogner said that officials on a local, regional and national level all recognize the potential for a positive economic impact.

"It could have a tremendous impact on the economy of the region," he said. "Federal, state and local officials of every stripe understand the impact of this railroad on the economic future of the North Coast."

President George Bush is expected to sign the Transportation Equity Act before Aug. 14 when the current federal transportation program and related funding expires, according to Stogner, and NCRA is planning to meet with Schwarzenegger's legislative affairs representatives this month.

Quincy Cromer can be reached at udjqc@pacific.net .