The Times-Standard, Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Rail purchase eyed less warily
By John Driscoll

North Coast railroad officials are still dubious about an Illinois group's pitch to buy the Northwestern Pacific Railroad after hearing from the group's lead man last week.

The presentation by Ted Niemeyer of the Chicago-area Niemeyer and Associates left everyone at the Healdsburg meeting wondering when and how that enormous task might occur, the North Coast Railroad Authority said in a press release.

The authority does appear to have softened its stance of two weeks ago. In a letter to Niemeyer on March 15, the authority clearly stated that its desire was to keep the rail in public ownership.

"In that regard, we are not in a position to consider proposals to purchase any portion of that corridor," that letter reads.

The final paragraph in the latest press release on Saturday said, "The official position of the NCRA is that any forthcoming proposals will be treated with one overriding concern -- what best serves the future prosperity of our area."

The railroad has been inoperable for more than four years, cut in half by landslides during winter storms that ravaged the unstable Eel River Canyon.

Board chairman Dave Ripple said it seems uncertain just what Niemeyer is proposing for what section of the rail line.

"I can't quite get a fix on exactly what Niemeyer does want," Ripple said. "The only thing that seems certain is that Niemeyer feels very strongly that he can raise large sums of money to take over all or some portion of the North Coast rail corridor."

Some discussion occurred over whether an item to consider a response to Niemeyer should even be on the agenda since a letter had already been sent to him outlining the authority's position. In the end, public interest in Niemeyer's presentation prevailed and Niemeyer spoke for about an hour.

Buying the railroad won't be easy. Several different entities own portions of the rail, which is subject to numerous right of way and operating agreements. Newly drafted legislation would, if passed, form the Sonoma-Marin Rail District, which would acquire some of the existing ownerships. It will also probably take an act of the state Legislature to sell the railroad. Lastly, buying the Northwestern Pacific will be really expensive, possibly costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Niemeyer is not phased, and said he has a team of more than a dozen hashing out the details. He said he didn't have time to prepare for the meeting and showed up "impromptu."

"I don't know all the answers," Niemeyer said by phone on Monday. "We wouldn't be out there if we did know a lot of the answers."

He said that some of the more tangible problems, like fixing tracks, tunnels and bridges are also the easier ones. The non-physical problems, like ownerships and politics, are more problematic, he said. At the same time, Niemeyer said his associates can deal with those problems.

"We're working on our plans and we know we can do it," Niemeyer said. "God wanted me out there for a reason."

Niemeyer expects to submit a proposal to operate the line, which may include the purchase of all or part of the North Coast Railroad Authority.

Authority director Leo Sears said he believes so strongly that the railroad is vital to this area's prosperity that he doesn't care whether it ends up in public or private hands -- only that it runs in the region's best interest.

"My belief in the importance of the railroad to the future prosperity of this area has brought me to the point where I eat, sleep and breathe its return," Sears said.