Eureka Times-Standard


Railroad seeking $52 million in federal funding
By John Driscoll The Times-Standard

Thursday, February 20, 2003 -

ARCATA -- The North Coast Railroad Authority is applying for millions in federal transportation funds that could be used to jump-start the ailing railroad while state funds are in limbo.

The authority will submit an application to Napa Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson -- who sits on the federal transportation committee -- for some $52 million. The hope is to use about $40 million to start a five-year reopening plan -- initially expected to be performed with locked-up state money -- and to pay down some $12 million in debt.

Whether such funds are within reach isn't known. President Bush must lay out what he wants when the Transportation Equity Act is reauthorized. The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate must then draw up bills which will lay out funding that will be available through the act. The transportation committee will then submit its requests.

With state funds for transportation on the ropes, reopening the Northwestern Pacific Railroad is in question for the time being. Without an operating railroad, the agency that is working to open the line will run out of revenue in a year or two. The line has been down since storms in 1997 and 1998 swamped sections of track through the erosive Eel River Canyon.

"I think at this point depending on $40 million in state funding is not a good idea," authority Executive Director Doug Christy told the board at its Wednesday meeting in the Arcata City Council chambers.

Some tension crept into the meeting when local railroad aficionado Marcus Brown told the board that the city of Eureka is applying for $5 million to rebuild an historic depot in Eureka and repair tracks around Humboldt Bay. Brown said he wasn't sure if the city and the railroad authority would be competing for a limited piece of the pie.

"That's a little troubling," said board director Allan Hemphill, for an entity that doesn't own the tracks to be applying for money to fix them.

Director Leo Sears was also upset at the notion, and said that while he supports the concept for a tourist train that would run around the bay, it's just "icing on the cake." The railroad as a whole, he said, is the whole cake.

Still, Brown's concept for a tourist train has been seen by some as more realistic, especially in the short term.

Thompson's office will coordinate the funding requests before making recommendations to the federal transportation committee.

"Congressman Thompson understands the importance of rail on the North Coast," said his spokeswoman Mandy Kenney on Wednesday.

Thompson will figure out the most viable options once he understands the funding outlook, she said.

Sears also directed Christy to seek funding for a study on gravel mining in the Eel River. Exporting aggregates has long been viewed as a possibility for shipping on the railroad, and was recently touted as a key business to develop in a harbor revitalization study done by consultant PB Ports and Marine.

The Van Duzen and Mad rivers have been studied more extensively than the sediment-heavy Eel River. Sears suggested some $5 million be sought, but said he was not sure if studies would qualify for the federal funds.