The Times-Standard  Wednesday, April 17, 2002 \

Supes Want Bill to Support Rail Line
By James Tressler

EUREKA -- Humboldt County supervisors on Tuesday asked alarmed railroad advocates to back off outright opposition to a state Assembly bill the advocates say could permanently put the North Coast out of the railroad business.

The board unanimously voted not to oppose the bill, as the North Coast Railroad Authority asked it to do. Instead the board called on the authority to brainstorm ways the bill could be amended to protect the North Coast's long-term rail interests. Supervisors said that drafting amendments may prove the more effective strategy -- especially since the bill has already been introduced. "I'd hate for us to be stomping our feet, saying no, and the legislation moves on without us adding amendments," Chairwoman Bonnie Neely said.

Assembly Bill 2224, introduced in February by North Bay Assemblyman Joe Nation, would dissolve the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Commission and Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority. It would create a new entity, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District. The district would eventually provide passenger train service between Cloverdale and San Rafael, along the Northwestern Pacific rail corridor that runs along U.S. Highway 101. The bill was heard on Monday in the Assembly Transportation Committee.

The bill also directs the district to negotiate "in good faith" a new operating agreement with the North Coast Railroad Authority. But director Leo Sears said he thinks the bill could be a sign that passenger rail on the southern end is going to push out any hopes for freight on the line. Sears said the authority never consulted when the bill was drafted and the existing bill doesn't sufficiently protect North Coast rail interests. The authority, which owns the portion of the line north of Healdsburg, has been trying to restore the line ever since El Niño storms washed out part of it four winters ago.

Many have dismissed the railroad restoration as a hopeless money pit. But railroad advocates say freight rail holds the key to the Humboldt County's economic future. With urban ports focusing their business on the more lucrative containerized shipping, Humboldt Bay could theoretically become a booming bulk port. These future plans, however, must compete with the present needs in the north San Francisco Bay area. Traffic problems and economic growth in Marin and Sonoma counties the past decade has spurred the need for light passenger rail. That project is being worked on by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Commission, which owns the portion of line south of Healdsburg.

County supervisors said they shared the authorities' concerns, but said outright opposition may only spark opposition between the two competing ends of the line.

Sears said one of Nation's representatives has also agreed to "broker" a meeting between Nation and North Coast representatives sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, the board adjourned its meeting until later this week, so it can hear some of the amendments proposed by the authority.