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After hours of public feedback overwhelmingly criticizing the project, the Trinity County Transportation Commission yesterday decided not to accept a $276,000 Caltrans grant to study the feasibility of a new railroad running east-west between Humboldt Bay and the Central Valley.
The commission, which is comprised of the same people who serve as the Trinity County Board of Supervisors, listened to members of the public voice concerns about the potential environmental, economic and private property impacts of constructing a new railroad through Trinity County. Afterward, Supervisor Bill Burton made a motion to accept the grant, but none of the other supervisors offered to second the motion so it died on the vine.
The commission applied for the sustainable transportation planning grant last year, though much of the legwork and boosterism for the project was conducted by a private group called the UpState Railconnect Committee. Now that the grant has been declined, the money will likely go back into Caltrans’ pot of funding for sustainable transportation planning, according to District 2 spokesperson Kathy Grah.
Supporters of the east-west rail project had lined up another $35,000 in local matching funds and $34,000 of in-kind cash or services for a total project cost of $345,000. But with this rejection from Trinity County rail boosters are back to the drawing board.
When the grant was announced last June, Trinity County Transportation Commission Executive Director Richard Tippett laid out the vision in a press release: “A new rail line connecting Humboldt Bay’s seaport with the national rail system in the Sacramento Valley has the potential to be a social and economic game-changer for Northern (Upstate) California, including Trinity County.”
This has been the common refrain among the various local rail booster groups that have been pushing this concept for the past six years or so. But environmental groups have opposed the project and many others, including the majority of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, have dismissed the idea of a new railroad as a pipe dream. A 2013 feasibility study commissioned by the Harbor District found that the project would cost more than $1 billion to construct and would require large amounts of cargo, as many as six full trains per day, to be sustainable.
Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) attended yesterday’s meeting and said his group is “thrilled” with the decision by the Trinity County Transportation Commission. The theoretical railroad, he said, would cross numerous wild and scenic rivers, and construction would require clearcuts and cause erosion.
Wheeler said Trinity County residents ultimately felt that they’d be burdened with all of the harm and see none of the benefits of the project, and he argued that our local region would be harmed by substantial development around Humboldt Bay. “As a Eurekan I don’t want to live in a city that would basically be a giant port,” Wheeler said.
Larry Glass, with the group Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment (SAFE), also attended the meeting and said the only people who spoke in favor of the project were Humboldt County residents involved with rail booster groups such as UpState Rail Connect and the LandBridge Alliance. Those speakers included Eureka City Councilmember Marian Brady and David Hull, the former CEO of the Harbor District and current executive director of the Humboldt Community Services District.
“We’re extremely pleased that the commissioners listened to the community, and with the great turnout we got,” Glass said. “I’ve been at many many public hearings, and what made this one exceptional was the quality of the speakers.”
His group objected to the proposed use of public lands for the railroad right-of-way, arguing that construction and maintenance of the railroad would cause environmental devastation.
Neither Hull nor Brady responded to requests for comment Friday.
Monte Provolt, who has been an active supporter of the east-west rail project, attended yesterday’s meeting and said Trinity County’s rejection of the grant likely means that the public will miss out on the chance to participate in another feasibility study, which he sees as inevitable.
“So when a feasibility study is done now it will probably be behind closed doors, and the public won’t know what’s there, where the route is or what it will effect,” Provolt said.
He accused EPIC and SAFE of spreading misinformation and scaring people. “The real point here is that Trinity County kind of gave up the opportunity for public participation,” Provolt said. “This was not for a railroad; it was a feasibility study to see where the route would be.”
Regardless, Provolt said he and other rail activists remain convinced that it’s “just a matter of time” before a private interest decides to finance a new railroad connecting Humboldt Bay to the national rail line.
In the meantime, Provolt and his fellow rail boosters plan to continue advocating and planning. “There’s no reason why we should not continue working on it,” he said.