Press Democrat Friday August 9, 2002

Proposal aims to reopen railroad

$61 million plan would reopen Northwestern Pacific to Eureka

By Bob Norberg

Freight trains could be running on the southern half of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad by next summer and through the Eel River Canyon by 2006 under a $61 million proposal being floated by the railroad's governing board. Using state funds already committed to the railroad, the line would be reopened in segments and freight operations subsidized until the entire line is reopened and shipping demand grows.

The proposal justifies the expenditure with the underlying assumption that has long guided the railroad's supporters: Restoration of rail service is vital to the North Coast economy. The railroad would haul out North Coast lumber, pulp and wood products, gravel, and solid waste, and bring in feed and grain and lumber products to stores along the rail line. The reopening would give companies a cheaper alternative to trucking those products, which are now taken over highways 101 and 299.

In addition, supporters say it could stimulate the little-used Humboldt Bay harbor. They envision the deep-water port becoming a national shipping point, with ships carrying such bulk cargo as scrap metal, Central Valley rice and grain, and gravel. "If we don't get the railroad in here and get the Humboldt Bay harbor working, this will become a touristy little backwater with little economic base," said Leo Sears of Eureka, a member of the North Coast Railroad Authority, which is a part-owner and operator of the freight line.

The proposal also has the support of Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, who is working to assure the railroad receives the $61 million in funding promised under the state's Transportation Relief Program, even as the state works through its severe fiscal problems.

The North Coast Railroad Authority board is expected to vote on the plan at a meeting Tuesday at the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors chambers. It also requires the approval of the California Transportation Commission. The proposal is the result of a $126,000 study undertaken for the railroad and the Humboldt Bay Conservation and Harbor District.

The rail line runs 273 miles from Schellville near Sonoma to Eureka. So far, some $70 million in public funds have gone into buying, running and repairing it, following a series of disastrous storms dating back to 1991. It is owned by two public agencies representing the counties and the Golden Gate Bridge District, with maintenance and operations overseen by the North Coast Railroad Authority.

The rail line suffered extensive damage during El NiƱo storms of 1998, which caused massive slides in the fragile Eel River Canyon and washed out large portions in the road bed in Russian River Canyon and along the line through Sonoma County. Since then, the railroad has only been open for 12 months between Willits and Sonoma. The last time trains ran, from February to September 2001, 300 carloads were carried from Penngrove to Schellville, where the railroad connects to the national rail network.

Under the plan, $46 million would be spent to reopen the railroad in segments. The line would be open between Willits and Schellville next summer, between Samoa and Eureka next winter and between Willits and Samoa by the winter of 2006.

The amount of freight traffic, however, is not enough to cover the operating costs and over the next five years would require at least $15 million in subsidy, according to the study. According to the study, a tourist train could attract 1,000 riders a month, and freight trains would carry between 16,000 and 25,000 cars and have an operating loss of $16 million to $25 million over the five-year period.

Dan Hauser, Arcata mayor, said it may not be as much freight traffic as in the 1950s, when the lumber industry was in full swing, but it is still important to the North Coast economy and deserves subsidizing. "We as a nation heavily subsidize our transportation system," Hauser said. "We build airports at public expense, maintain them at public expense. We do the same with ports, we do the same with highways. The only thing we don't do it with is rail, yet the cost-effectiveness of rail makes it the best method of transportation."

Bob Jehn, Cloverdale mayor and a former railroad authority president, believes that there is more of a demand by shippers for freight and tourists for an excursion train than the study indicates. "As mayor, I used to get phone calls from people in the Midwest and East Coast asking when the railroad was going to run, they wanted to move to our town," Jehn said. "For a lot of folks, the railroad is a big issue."

The reopening to Eureka is also seen as important to the development of Humboldt Bay over the next several decades. "The Pacific Rim is going to continue to grow," said Sears, who is also a retired county auditor-appraiser. "All of our harbors along the coast have become congested. They are efficient with containerized cargo -- they move that stuff in there like a conveyor belt. But not ... anything not in containers. There is a niche market for that."