With a $345,000 grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Trinity County Department of Transportation has taken the lead in the ongoing search for public money to study the prospect of building a new east-west rail line connecting Humboldt Bay with the national rail system somewhere in the Sacramento Valley.

While our county’s easterly neighbor is the official signatory, the effort is clearly the latest gambit from the same fantasists who have been peddling this idea for several years now. This lot, which has grown a variety of agency tentacles (chief among them the Upstate RailConnect Committee), has polished a sales pitch filled with cherry-picked data and dubious claims.

This familiar bill of goods has been incorporated into the application for a federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant. (Click here for the grant app in a big pdf file.)

Notably, the Upstate RailConnect Committee continues to recycle material from an 18-year-old study called the Quigley Report, which was written by a (now-deceased) U.C. Berkeley economist and commissioned (and long since discarded) by the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. The federal application is peppered with claims from this obsolete report, though it never identifies Quigley as a source (referring only to “past economic modeling”) and studiously ignores all subsequent data that runs counter to his study’s claims.

For example, the grant application makes no mention of a $20,000 pre-feasibility study commissioned by the Harbor District and completed just last year. That study concluded that with an estimated construction cost in excess of a billion dollars, the east-west railroad is what Wall Street types might call a terrible investment. 

But the TIGER grant application argues that calculating a likely price tag would only muddy the waters.

“The concept of conducting a ‘market’ study prior to the feasibility study has been thoroughly discussed with the conclusion being that the information provided by the feasibility study will allow others the ability to utilize that information in developing any market or operational models,” the report says.

In other words, private companies can’t be expected to dive into a billion-dollar investment unless the public first spends $345,000 telling them how awesome it might be.

“The Feasibility Study will show if the establishment of an east-west rail connection will have benefits,” says the application. Brilliant! In addition to enumerating the many potential benefits, this study would identify a few proposed routes, figure out the property ownership along those routes and come up with a conceptual development plan. As for analyzing risks? That will be left to the no-growth naysayers.

This elaborate choo-choo pursuit, which is being led by former Eureka City Manager David Tyson, former Harbor District CEO David Hull and Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn, has performed an end-run around the Harbor District, probably because the Harbor District long ago moved on to more realistic goals. But the application does include a tall stack of support letters from the likes of regional city and county governments, local tribes, timber and railroad companies, business associations, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey and more.

Some of the official support has been conditional, though. The Humboldt County Association of Governments, for example, only gave the thumbs-up after specifying that it didn’t want to chip in a red cent, which may be why Trinity County is now at the helm.

The application appears to have been completed before a Red Bluff mortgage broker named Bob Martin told the Upstate RailConnect Committee to forget about public funding. Martin said he represents a private group called the Humboldt Tehama Railroad Development Corporation that wants to fund its own study, according to the North Coast Journal. And the Red Bluff Daily News reports that Martin is also a board member of the Land Bridge Alliance, the nonprofit tentacle of the rail booster clique. 

Martin’s proposal caused a great deal of head-scratching last month, but David Hull, the former Harbor District CEO, laid out just this type of scenario last year. As the Outpost reported at the time, Hull was asked what would happen if some rich entity wanted to pay for a study. He responded with a prolonged series of hypotheticals, paraphrased here:

“What if this private party just wants to fund his own study, cutting Upstate RailConnect out of the loop entirely? What if he dropped a bunch of cash into Tyson’s Land Bridge Alliance, with the proviso that the money be forwarded to Upstate RailConnect to fund the study with no strings attached? What if he dropped a bunch of cash into the Land Bridge Alliance in the same way, but with a bunch of strings attached — i.e., that some, most or all of the information in the study be kept confidential?”

Members of the Upstate RailConnect Committee were wary of such a scenario at the time, but perhaps they’ve changed their minds. Or perhaps, like the Harbor Commission, the dissenting voices have been cut out of the loop.

One more curveball to throw into the mix: China just announced plans to build an 8,000-mile undersea rail line to America. How awesome would that be?