Thursday, February 21, 2002
funds won't go to southern part of railroad for now
EUREKA -- In what appears a small victory for
railroad proponents in northern Humboldt County, the North Coast Railroad
Authority voted to shelve a project that might shift disaster funds to the
southern part of the rail line and away from work needed in the Eel River
The rail authority board of directors heard from
Federal Emergency Management Authority and state Office of Emergency Services
staff at its meeting Wednesday. The three federal and state representatives
answered questions about the timeline to receive -- or lose -- allocated
After about three hours, the board voted 5 to 1
to table, for the time being, an alternate project that could use $8.3 million
in federal relief funds for improvements along the southern portion of the rail
instead of for work north of Willits.
Board members Leo Sears, Allan Hemphill, Daniel
Opalach, Robert Simonson and Budge Campbell voted to table the alternate
project. Board chairman David Ripple cast the dissenting vote.
Most board members eventually agreed that they
could see no value in pursuing the alternate project, but most also refused to
toss it out completely. The alternate project could be reconsidered at any time.
"I'd like to see us set the stake in the
ground," said board member Dan Opalach, strongly showing concern about what
he said has been a lack of conviction from the board over time.
The motion was brought by Leo Sears, who said
pursuing the alternate project was "chasing moonbeams." The
"improved" project, which concentrates on repairing the rail line
through the highly erosive Eel River Canyon, has already been signed off on by
nearly 20 public agencies, Sears said.
In previous meetings the board heard from
business leaders who staunchly opposed such a switch in funding, which would
also result in a 10 percent penalty. Wednesday, several speakers outlined again
why they believed the railroad is crucial to the economic viability of northern
Humboldt County and the port of Humboldt Bay.
Harbor Commissioner Dennis Hunter said the port,
which was recently dredged to accommodate deep-draft ships, would certainly die
without the railroad.
"In all the meetings I've been to on port
development," Hunter said, "it's always been 'the port is the railroad
is the port is the railroad.'"
Another Eureka resident, Paul Augustine,
expressed frustration with how long it is taking for the restoration of the rail
"In the Gulf War, we knocked off one of the
world's greatest armies in four days," Augustine said. "We can't
repair an existing railroad in four years?"
Nadananda of Friends of the Eel River said she
was concerned that the rail would not long survive in the Eel River canyon,
which is so prone to landslides. She said that the Southern Humboldt
organization hasn't taken a position on the railroad project, but said an
accident that derails a train and spills garbage into the river would be an
Work in the canyon would not begin for at least
18 months after FEMA's June 30 deadline. That's when the railroad authority has
to submit an assessment of the scope of the work that needs to be done there,
said federal emergency representative Alessandro Amaglio.
Currently, a contractor hired by the railroad
authority is examining the line through the canyon to figure out what needs to
be done there. Several board members questioned whether that work could be
wrapped up by June 30. The authority can file for an extension, which a regional
FEMA director can either approve or deny.
FEMA representative Harry Sherwood also told the
board that a marketing study is also needed by the regional director to show
that progress is being made on the rail. That left some on the board to question
what might happen if a grant being considered by the state for that study is
Sherwood said the regional director understands
that there are circumstances beyond the railroad authority's control. Still, the
regional director is not likely to approve an extension, Sherwood said
"unless they see really darn good reasons."
Sherwood also said that regulatory pressure to
use the FEMA money has been on since the first in a string of disasters along
the rail line beginning in the early 1990s. The disaster aid has already been
rolled several times into more current disasters, he said.
In addition to the FEMA funds, the rail
authority also has $60 million in state and federal money to upgrade the line,
including $31 million to stabilize areas prone to landslides.