Humboldt bEACON -  aPRIL 17, 2002

Legislation Threatens Re-establishment of Rail Lines

     The tracks remain dormant on the ground while things remain up in the air
for the re-establishment of rail service to Humboldt County. North Coast
Railroad Authority Director Leo Sears spoke at t Eureka Lions' Club lunch on
April 11, explaining the current status of the ongoing attempt to get the
trains moving again.
    Sears posed the bottom-line question for himself: "Will we get it up and
running?" His answer was a confident, "Yes." However, actually bringing this
promise to fruition will take a lot of patience and a lot of wrangling.
    In the words of Sears, the rail line that the North Coast Railroad
Authority (NCRA) inherited "is a mess, physically and financially." For
years, the railroad struggled to make ends meet under private ownership. In
the 1980s, then-owner Eureka Southern filed for bankruptcy. Subsequently,
parts of the rail line were torn up and sold for scrap.
    In 1989, the state stepped in and formed the NCRA whose mandate was to
revitalize the line. However, according to Sears, a companion bill designed
to fund the project was vetoed.
    Nonetheless, Sears said repeatedly that money is not the issue. "We have
roughly $17 million," said Sears. The problem is that the money comes from
17 different sources, with strings attached. Each source of funding had
diffeent requirements, different hoops to jump through. the maze of red tape
is daunting. Sears impressed upon the audience the difficulty of getting all
of the involved organizations to agree. He noted that some of the money may
disappear if it is not used.
    Meanwhile, the line itself, between Humboldt county and the Bay Area is
divided up like a jigsaw puzzle with various entities owning the
interconnecting pieces of the line. NCRA owns the line from Willits north.
Below Willits, the line is owned by a number of different organizations,
each looking out for the interests of its own region.
    Recently, this divided ownership has spawned a new problem, one that
threatens to destroy the entire project. Sonoma and Marin Counties are
hoping to form a joint railway organization called the Sonoma-Marin Rail
Transit District (SMART). Accordingly, Assembly Bill 2224 seeks to establish
such an organization whose sole purpose is commuter transit.
    This creates a big problem for the restoration of the freight line.
Establishment of a commuter line in the middle of the freight line would
disrupt freight service, limiting shipping time to the wee hours of the
morning when the commuter service is not running. Such limitations would
render freight service impracticable; it would effectively cripple the line.
    Sears said that SMART fails to consider the interests of Humboldt
County. Calling the assembly bill "detrimental to the North Coast," Sears
said that both NCRA and the Humboldt County Taxpayers League are opposing
the bill. At Tuesday's Humboldt County Supervisors' meeting, the board voted
to oppose the bill as well, for the aforementioned reasons.
    Sears had to devote time to convincing skeptics of the need for a
railroad. People voiced concerns that rail is an antiquated and outmoded
form of transportation, no longer a valid option in our world of advanced
    Sears told dissenters that this is far from being the case, particularly
when it comes to shipping freight. He explained that sending freight by air
is cost-prohibitive and therefore, unrealistic. He further explained that
sending freight on trucks, as the county has been doing is more expensive
than rail freight and uses more fuel: "The rail line is equal to a four-lane
highway in terms of shipping, but at one quarter the fuel costs."
    Furthermore, Sears argued that the rail is absolutely necessary for the
vitalization of the port. He talked of the developing trade with Pacific Rim
nations, saying that west coast ports are seeing more and more commerce
coming through the shipping lanes. He said that with effective ground
transportation (railroad), Humboldt Bay could become a viable port; he said
that without it, Humboldt County will be reduced to reliance on tourism and
retirees. Sears echoed the concerns of local lumber companies, saying that
because Humboldt County is bereft of rail service, the local timber industry
is hard pressed to compete with lumber companies in Washington and Oregon
who can ship their products greater distances at lower costs via rail.
    Sears said that he expects the trains will be running by 2006.