Times-Standard  Thursday, February 21, 2002

Federal funds won't go to southern part of railroad for now

By John Driscoll

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 Canyon.

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 disaster funds.

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 service.

"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 environmental catastrophe.

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 rejected.

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.