North Coast Journal  July 11, 2002

Holy roller not giving up


Ted Niemeyer of Niemeyer and Associates and the newly formed Eel River Railroad are not going away.

That's despite what Leo Sears of the Northcoast Railroad Authority has called several "non-starters" in Niemeyer's offer to acquire the portion of the railroad between Healdsburg and the Eureka/Arcata area. One, according to Sears, is that Niemeyer, because he's a private operator, won't be able to get the $42 million in state funds to rebuild the railroad. Nor, Sears said, will Niemeyer be able to lay his hands on $8.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair washed out tracks in the Eel River Canyon.

Undaunted, Niemeyer -- who has told the local media that he had a religious vision that he was going to acquire the railroad -- said this week that he's still going ahead on the deal. We're developing our financing as though it (the state and federal money) did not exist," Niemeyer said in a telephone interview from his office in Ringwood, Ill. "We are approaching this project as a high-cost, low-revenue sort of deal, but you'd be remiss as a negotiator if you didn't try to get the best deal; the more money, the higher the rate of return."

Niemeyer originally proposed his plan to acquire and reopen the rail line on June 7 at a North Coast Railroad Authority meeting. Board members were wary of his aggressive project time line (he proposed to have the line open in six months and to begin work on June 24) and his very open religious convictions.

"If he can do anything he says he can do I would jump up and down for joy; I would rather not waste all this time," said Sears by telephone from his Eureka home. "But is it going to happen? I'm skeptical."

Niemeyer, on the other hand, has no qualms about his plans. He sees the skepticism as a trust issue and the renewal of railroad service on the North Coast as a sacred duty.

"If we say something is going to happen it's going to happen," said Niemeyer. "If we drag things out too much it's not going to be able to happen this year. I'm not a public relations person; I'm just a Christian, a railroad engineering person, and what we're trying to do is what's right." Niemeyer, a Lutheran, stressed his diverse background, railroad experience and ability to build teams of highly qualified professionals as selling points for his firm.

"I was born in the inner city of Chicago, and now I manage a ranch in Wyoming," Niemeyer said. Niemeyer was born in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago on Sept. 22, 1949. He attended Valparaiso University in Indiana, graduating with a degree in engineering. He immediately went to work for Chicago Northwestern Railroad, both building and decommissioning railroads. (He met his wife when he split her family's ranch in Wyoming in half with a railroad line.) That ended when the railroad was bought out by Union Pacific in 1989.

At that point Niemeyer decided to strike out on his own. Originally he was not very successful, "making so much money I didn't have to pay income tax," in his words, but over the years his persistence paid off. Last year Niemeyer and Associates grossed just over $8 million. Their work has included training contractors for work on the Canadian National and Norfolk Southern railroads, rebuilding 300 miles of track in Texas and consulting in Germany.

His association with railroads on the North Coast began when his firm was hired as the engineer for the line's operator, Northwestern Pacific, near the end of 2000. "We have an area of the country that needs rail service," Niemeyer said. "It is something we knew about, and something that has perplexed us."

His company had never attempted to buy a railroad before, but his people had inspected the entire line and made estimates of time and costs involved, and since no one else seemed willing or able, Niemeyer decided his corporation would be right for the job.

"At Christmas time I never would have imagined this; it's like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle coming together," said Niemeyer. "We have the financial, operating and engineering, and legal people. We found a plan to develop a business where we think it could work."