The Times-Standard Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Board Backs Amendments to Railroad Bill
By James Tressler

EUREKA -- In a special session on Friday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously backed amendments to a state bill railroad advocates say threaten North Coast rail interests. The bill, proposed earlier this year by North Bay Assemblyman Joe Nation, seeks to create a new operating district for the portion of line south of Healdsburg. This district would eventually provide passenger train service for the rapidly growing North Bay region.

North Coast railroad advocates say the bill, which would also give the district complete ownership of the lines south of Healdsburg, needs to be amended to require a new operating agreement be negotiated between all stakeholders. This agreement would provide easements for passenger and freight rail. Railroad advocates like Leo Sears, who addressed the board on Friday, say without this new agreement the new agency may decide to invest in light passenger cars, which would mean heavier freight cars could only run two hours before and after passenger service. That would mean freight could only be run for a couple of hours in the early morning, which wouldn't make any sense, Sears said.

The modified bill would also keep the same proportion of North Coast rail representatives on the new district as it has on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority. In backing these amendments, the supervisors reiterated their position from earlier in the week, which holds that amending the bill is likely be more practical than outright opposition. Earlier this week the bill cleared the Assembly's Transportation Committee.

No one from the county has met Nation, who maintains that a successful bill, combined with a sales-tax initiative this fall, will bring much-needed passenger rail to Marin and Sonoma counties. County officials avoided criticizing Nation, and even railroad advocates were cautious in speculating whether the North Bay lawmaker is trying to push aside the North Coast interests. All said they hoped the amendments will spark successful negotiations, with the Assemblyman seeing that the two competing rail interests can be compatible.

"The need for transit rail has to be conducive to our need," said Supervisor John Woolley.

Woolley said he hopes to meet with Nation when he travels to Sacramento next week. The board is sending Sears, who is director of the railroad authority, to the Bay area to meet with bill sponsors and other railroad representatives later this month.

The authority has been trying to restore the railroad ever since El NiƱo storms washed out portions of the line in the Eel River Canyon four winters ago. The state several years ago authorized $60 million to restore the line, but that can't happen until an environmental report is completed. While some argue the railroad is a hopeless cause, enthusiasts say a reborn railroad is vital to re-inventing the North Coast economy, which has choked in recent years with the decline of the area's manufacturing sector.

Nation's bill comes at a time when the county's planning department conducting a study to determine if the railroad in fact would be a viable investment. That study is expected to be completed this summer.