The Humboldt Beacon, Thursday, February 28, 2002
Railroad Plan A Moves Forward



For 80 years, the trains ran. The whistles blew, and the engines chugged along, carrying freight between Humboldt County and the Bay Area.


Then in the late 1990s, a series of storms rendered sections of track impassable. Beleaguered by financial troubles and unable to re-establish the line, the railroad went under. Since that time, the North Coast Railroad Authority has been trying to get the trains running again. However, this is by no means an easy task.


The Eel River Canyon has proven to be the bane of the North Coast Railroad Authority's existence. Steep canyon walls in a seismically active area create an environment of frequent landslides. Such slides have historically wiped out sections of the track that run through the canyon.


The Authority has worked hard to acquire funding to repair this section of the track, and has managed to secure $60 million from the state and federal governments to re-establish the line. It has also been working with the Federal Emergency Management Authority  (FEMA) to secure federal emergency relief funds for the parts of the track that have been washed out by landslides.


The eventual repair and re-establishment of the rail line is a long-term process, and an  expensive one. Even if the process does move forward, Humboldt County residents can expect to see rail service restored to Eureka no sooner than autumn of 2006.


The process involves 18 separate agencies, both state and federal. The railroad authority has to obtain several permits from the various agencies; this entails meeting many sets of standards. Outside funding is contingent upon meeting these standards.


This is true of FEMA, with whom the NCRA board of directors spoke for several hours at their Feb. 20 meeting. FEMA representative Harry Sherwood told the board that FEMA would not provide funding for a project that was likely to be destroyed and in need of money again in the near future. He was referring to the Eel River Canyon stretch of the track. Sherwood said that sections of the line require engineering work that would prevent future landslides.


FEMA has been conducting a long surveying project of the Eel River Canyon as a prerequisite for future funding. According to Sherwood, all of the disaster sites have been surveyed, many three or four times. "We have a good picture of the actual costs," he said. "We have  determined a dollar estimate (for repairing said disaster sites)." Sherwood did not disclose that dollar amount.


Sherwood said that the only thing remaining before the release of FEMA funds is to establish compliance with environmental documentation. He said that in order to allow FEMA to complete its environmental assessment, the railroad authority needs to supply additional information from its own surveys.


The Plan


All of this is in pursuit of what is being called "The Improvement Plan," a plan to repair and upgrade the existing rail line. However, pursuing the improvement plan has not been the clear direction guiding the rail authority from the beginning. Some proposed alternative proposals have been taken very seriously.


At the Feb. 20 meeting, Friends of the Eel River founder Nadananda delivered a characteristically confrontational presentation urging the authority to pursue an alternate plan re-routing the track along the Highway 101 corridor and away from the traditionally unstable grounds of the Eel River Canyon.


However, board members objected to the idea of abandoning the Improvement Plan, arguing that the 18 agencies involved in re-establishing rail service have already approved it and that to begin to work toward a new plan would amount to starting over.


With that idea in mind, Director Leo Sears made a motion to table the alternate plan and to clearly focus energies toward fulfilling the Improvement Plan. The authority has a June 30 deadline to provide FEMA with an assessment of the work that needs to be done on the Improvement Plan.


Sears' motion initiated a 45-minute debate between the directors.


Director Allan Hemphill argued that it would be unwise to permanently close the door on any options.


Directors Hemphill and Budge Campbell argued that should the Improvement Plan fall through for any reason, it would behoove the authority to have a backup plan.


Director Daniel Opalach seconded Sears' sentiment, saying, "Now is the time for us to put a stake in the ground, and say, 'This is what we're going to do.'" The audience applauded loudly, reflecting the community's desire to restore rail service to Humboldt County.


When the dust cleared, Sears re-stated a modified version of his motion clarifying that the alternate plan would be temporarily put aside, but not definitively rejected. Director Hemphill seconded the motion, which then passed 5-1. The only nay vote came from Board Chairman David Ripple.


During the public comment segments of the meeting, several people expressed their concerns and their support of the railroad. Harbor District Vice President Dennis Hunter emphasized the railroad's importance to the community, saying,

"The port is the railroad is the port is the railroad."


More than one person expressed the belief that without rail support for shipping services, the port will die.

Although their visions differ slightly in terms of the best approach, all of the directors expressed a strong interest in moving forward with the railroad restoration as quickly as possible. FEMA representatives echoed this sentiment, explaining that FEMA funding is contingent upon visible progress on the project.


Hemphill noted that board members felt some frustration with the legal environment (with its multiple, complex sets of rules and regulations), "but we've seen nothing but support from the regulatory agencies."