The Times-Standard Monday May 13, 2002

Rail Service is vital to California's harbors

By James Quinn


      The draft of Caltrans’ new 25-year transportation plan underscores the need for adequate railroad facilities at California’s harbors.  Otherwise, Caltrans warns, harbor staging areas will become too congested and maritime commerce will go elsewhere.  Such legitimate concern about ship-to-rail connections contrasts sharply with the performance of the bureaucratic keepers of railroad repair funds earmarked for the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA).

The potential of Humboldt County’s greatly improved harbor (after the expenditure of tens of millions in public funds for dredging) to bolster the regional economy is widely acknowledged.  The Harbor Commission repeatedly stresses the need for rail service.  The sense of urgency in Caltrans’ 25-year plan is not evident, however, when it comes to   Humboldt Bay Harbor’s need to expedite the return of rail service to Humboldt County.

When will the current funding freeze end?  When will the NCRA be permitted to repair El Nino storm damage in the Eel River Canyon?

This January (after a year of bureaucratic scrutiny) the NCRA finally was allowed to hire engineering consultants, and they will file a report called a “Capital Projects Assessment” with the California Transportation Commission (CTC) by the end of June.  It will set forth a final scope of work for the entire NWP repair project, cost estimates and other information.

 The freeze on funding, however, will continue until, in the words of CTC Resolution TAA-01-04 dated May 2, 2001, “all agencies are satisfied with the final scope of work.”  “All agencies” specifically includes the CTC, Caltrans and FEMA.  It also includes the host of other public agencies that gather together four times a year to confab about the repair project and how the NCRA is complying with the myriad requirements that the agencies have promulgated.  Can you imagine how long the bureaucratic ball can continue to be batted around among all these agencies – until every agency is satisfied? 

All this, of course, serves as a prime example of the bureaucratic excesses that have handcuffed and delayed the railroad in its effort to restore service.  It demonstrates what Governor Davis has called the "environmental gridlock” impeding California's transportation projects.

Judging from the glacial pace of the repair project’s bureaucratic oversight, you might never guess that Caltrans considers rail service vital to the effective operation of California harbors.  Excessive red tape is costing North Coast taxpayers dearly.  The more money spent on planning and paperwork, the less is available to actually fix the line and reestablish the North Coast’s only link to the nation’s railroad grid.

All interested individuals and organizations, both public and private, must marshal whatever influence they have to assure that there is a quick turnaround on the processing of the Capital Projects Assessment by the CTC and the many other involved agencies, so that work to restore rail service to the North Coast can begin as soon as possible.  The railroad needs your help -- now!

James Quinn is a retired California Public Utilities Commission attorney, who has worked on railroad issues for many years. He lives in Burlingame.