Railroad Legislation Still in Contention
by Rhett Stephens
San Francisco -- Directors of the North Coast Railroad Authority traveled to San Francisco on Monday in an attempt to clear a new obstacle from the tracks of the rail line that they are trying to restore. Assemblyman Joe Nation has introduced legislation that would establish a light rail passenger service within Sonoma and Marin Counties. The problem is that the legislation, if passed, threatens to effectively prevent freight service to Humboldt County. The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) directors hope to amend the bill in such a way as to rectify the conflicting interests of Humboldt County and its southern neighbors.
NCRA's quest to restore rail service to Humboldt County has been a long haul from the beginning. NCRA Director Leo Sears said that the NCRA inherited the rail line in a dilapidated state. The organization was charged with restoration of the line, but the governor vetoed a companion bill designed to fund the project.
At the same time, increased environmental restrictions have mired progress considerably. "The main problem is environmental gridlock," said Sears. Speaking of past practices that were environmentally irresponsible, Sears said, "We cannot go back to the old days, but the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction." By way of example, Sears said that it took the NCRA an entire year to hire an engineer. Any NCRA action takes a considerable amount of time because it must be cleared by 18 separate organizations.
Nonetheless, despite these formidable obstacles the railroad plans have been moving forward. However, the aforementioned legislation, Assembly Bill 2224 threatens to undermine whatever progress has been made. As it was originally written, the bill called for the establishment of a passenger rail system that would serve commuters in Sonoma and Marin Counties. However, this is deeply problematic for the NCRA who are interested in re-establishing freight service to and from Humboldt County.
The legislation does not prohibit freight service. However, if the bill were to pass as it was originally written, it would render freight service ineffective. This is true for a couple of reasons. Sears said that federal law mandates that freight trains and passenger trains must be separated by a two-hour buffer on both ends. In other words, a freight train cannot run less than two hours before a passenger train nor less than two hours after a passenger train.
The reason for this is safety. Freight trains are much heavier than the light rail passenger trains that Sonoma and Marin are planning on running. An accident between a freight train and a light rail passenger train would be catastrophic to the smaller passenger train.
With the collective four-hour buffer, it would be difficult to schedule freight service. Sears said that in order for a passenger line to operate effectively, trains would have to run regularly throughout the day. This would effectively limit freight service to a few hours in the middle of the night. Sears said that such a limited schedule is not really a feasible solution. Not only would it limit the freight possibilities beyond a practical level, it would be extremely impractical in terms of loading and unloading freight. Sears said, "It's not feasible to service customers at three o'clock in the morning." He said that no one is working at that time and that the noise would be intolerable to local residents.
With these concerns in mind, the NCRA approached the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, attempting to elicit their support in opposing the bill. Instead of opposing the bill, however, the Board suggested that NCRA propose amendments to the bill that would make it work for Humboldt County.
NCRA subsequently drafted an amended version of the bill to present at Monday's meeting. The amended draft altered the language to include the following: ". . . the Northwestern Pacific Rail Line in Sonoma and Marin Counties to provide for a passenger rail system operating in harmony with the existing freight railroad operating upon the same rail line serving the Counties of Napa, Sonoma, Marin(,) Mendocino, and Humboldt."
Sears said that this harmonious operation could be achieved through the use of heavier passenger trains. According to Sears, heavier commuter trains would be more expensive, but they would also be more safe, allowing for a decreased buffer time between freight trains and passenger trains.
The weight of the passenger trains is not the only issue that caused concern for the NCRA. Under the current rail line configuration, the NCRA plays a prominent role in determining the use of the track. AB 2224 threatens to change that. As things now stand, NCRA controls the line from Eureka to Healdsburg. The Northwestern Pacific Rail Line (NWPRA) owns the line from Willits to Lombard. However, the NCRA has right of way to Lombard. Also, the governing board of the NWPRA consists of two members (out of seven) representing the NCRA.
The original language of AB 2224 would establish a new organization, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, that would operate the line within their counties. The legislation specifies who would sit on the board of this hypotheticl organization; the list does not include any representatives of the NCRA. The NCRA is concerned that this lack of representation would create a situation in which the interests of Humboldt County are overlooked. Consequently, part of their amended draft specifies NCRA representation in the same 2/7 proportion that it currently holds with the NWPRA.
The amended draft has one other key stipulation. According to the language of the original draft, should the new organization dissolve, "The right, title, and interest to any remaining property vests in the county in which it is situated." Afraid that such a scenario could leave Humboldt County isolated from the Bay Area, cut off by conflicting interests of counties between, the NCRA suggested a different resolution. The amended draft reads, "The right, title, and interest to any remaining property vests to the North Coast Railroad Authority." "It's better to keep ownership with the railroad (rather than the counties)," said Sears. He argued that it makes more sense to consolidate the bodies governing the rail line.
The reaction from the drafters of the original bill was less than enthusiastic. "It was what I expected but not what I wanted," Sears said. He said that there remains a difference of opinion regarding the future of the rail line. There are no firm conclusions yet. Monday's meeting served merely to open negotiations. Sears said that the NCRA is supposed to receive a letter voicing the other side's position in writing. The NCRA Board will discuss the letter at its next meeting scheduled for May 15.
Sears said that the Board's options are to oppose the bill, agree with the bill, take no stand on the bill, or ask for further amendments