Hank Sims / @ 4:40 p.m. / Railroad

Government Railroad Agency Says It’s Still Looking to Bring Trains Back to Humboldt County, Even as its Finances and Fortunes Spiral Downward


Railroad cars upside-down in the Eel, from a derailment long ago. Photo: Friends of the Eel River.

Meeting in Eureka today, the board of directors of the North Coast Railroad Authority reaffirmed its intention to someday reopen railroad service in and around Humboldt County, despite having, by its own admission, no idea how it will ever do so.

The proclamation approved by the board this morning declares that the publicly owned railroad agency intends to restore service on any or all railroad segments north of the city of Willits “at the earliest possible time” when and if ever it finds the money to do so, and when and if it ever finds anyone who would actually want to run such trains.

“The entire purpose here is to make clear that the NCRA stands behind the people of Humboldt County and their desire to restore rail service,” NCRA executive director Mitch Stogner told the Outpost this morning, just before the meeting began.

No actual trains have run in Humboldt County for nearly 20 years. During that time, the physical infrastructure of the railroad has deteriorated and crumbled, especially where it passes along the remote and rugged country along the Eel River between Dos Rios in Mendocino County and South Fork in Humboldt. The cost estimates of restoring the line vary wildly but run anywhere from several hundred million dollars to a couple of billion.

But the authority felt that a proclamation trumpeting its commitment to trains in Humboldt – someday, somehow – was necessary in light of comments made by former congressman Doug Bosco at a meeting of the California Transportation Commission in June. The commission had devoted some of its monthly meeting to an attempt to get a grip on the NCRA’s shaky finances, and Bosco – who has some stake in NWPCo, the private company that contracts to run freight trains along the NCRA’s right of way – was there to testify. While doing so, he told commissioners that his company has no plans or desire ever to run any trains north of Sonoma County.

“About 240 miles of this railroad will probably never be operated,” Bosco said at the time. “We as a private company are not going to operate from Napa to Eureka. We are operating profitably from Napa to around Windsor.”

This came as a surprise to many in Humboldt County, at least some of whom remember former meetings of the NCRA board, during which former NWPCo president John Williams loudly denounced and vowed to sue anyone who attempted to build a trail alongside “his” Humboldt County tracks. Today, though, Stogner said that NWPCo only has an “option” on exclusive freight rights on the line north of Willits, and so the authority is free to seek other private companies who might want to get something going in Humboldt County.

No one seemed to have much idea what that thing might realistically be. During discussion of this morning’s proclamation in support of rail, director John McCowen, who represents Mendocino County on the board, suggested adding some numbers that would acknowledge the enormous cost of opening any kind of service along 40-odd miles of track in the Eel River Canyon, which would be necessary to link the northern section of the line to the national rail grid. But Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell, who also sits on the authority’s board of directors, scotched the notion.

“What we’re doing here is reiterating and reaffirming our role in shepherding whatever we can do with the NCRA,” Fennell said. “I think we’re getting down into the weeds, here.”

The proclamation, which eventually passed unanimously, distinguishes between the Eel River Canyon and the “Humboldt Bay Block” of NCRA right of way – that stretch of railroad that runs from Samoa, around Humboldt Bay and down to a point about 30 miles south of Scotia. The final text as approved by the board suggested that the authority was “particularly receptive” to any proposals to restore “passenger, excursion or freight” service along the latter stretch, in isolation from the national rail grid, though there are, as the proclamation states elsewhere, “no foreseeable funding sources to fund the restoration costs.”

The North Coast Railroad Authority has struggled mightily almost since its inception in the early ‘90s, and especially since the federal government ordered the entire line closed for safety in 1997. (A small stretch on the southern end has since reopened.) But the past few months have been especially difficult. At the California Transportation Commission meeting mentioned above, the commission ordered the authority to come up with both a “business plan” and a “shutdown plan” – i.e., a plan for what would happen in case the NCRA were to fail entirely. In late July, the California Supreme Court decided that the authority is, in fact, bound by the California Environmental Quality Act, which the authority strenuously denied. And the agency’s finances are such that it is required to sell off or lease out land owned by the public in order to pay its bills.

That last matter took up the bulk of the rest of the NCRA’s agenda today. The authority discussed new lease arrangements with two businesses that wish to legally use the railroad’s land as crossing points – Recology, Humboldt County’s garbage handler, and grow store Spare Time Supply in Willits. They talked about a pending agreement with PG&E for the utility’s encroachment on railroad land, and about the still ongoing sale of the authority’s Ukiah Depot site for a new Mendocino Courthouse. They put off, for the time being, a pending arrangement to lease railroad easements on part of Eureka’s Balloon Track back to Security National, which proposes to pay the authority a much-needed $15,000 per year for the next 20 years, and also promises to pay for the demolition of the abandoned office building that Eureka fire, police and building officials have deemed a nuisance. Real estate deals like these are the great bulk of the NCRA’s income, these days – and it’s still in the red, according to Stogner’s testimony at the CTC in June.

At this point, the railroad authority’s assertion that it is still eager to run trains in Humboldt may be as much about holding on to these meager funding opportunities as it is about running trains. In the wake of the CTC’s demand for a “shutdown plan” last June, more and more people – especially in Humboldt – are wondering if the North Coast Railroad Authority is nearing the end of the line. On Aug, 8, the Humboldt County Association of Governments sent a letter to Stogner asking that local government agencies be included in any talks about what to do with the authority’s publicly owned right of way in the event the authority gives up the ghost.

For the moment, though, people with dealings before the railroad authority are still careful to talk to it as if trains are real. Hank Seemann of the Humboldt County Department of Public Works – the man leading county efforts on the Humboldt Bay Trail, which will someday run from Arcata to Eureka – gave a presentation to the board this morning to tell them about a grant opportunity from the California Office of Emergency Services that might help pay for the restoration of the very badly degraded railroad prism along Humboldt Bay, near the eucalyptus trees. Seemann’s team estimates that it will take some $3.5 million to rehab just that small stretch of track. Once that’s done, it can serve as an effective levee to hold rising waters back from the Highway 101 corridor, and it can serve as the southernmost leg of the bay trail. And, of course, as a newly restored railroad track, ready for all the trains to roll down. Someday.

The CalOES grant, if the county receives it, will pay for 75 percent of the cost of the reconstruction of this bit of NCRA property, Seemann said. The other 25 percent? The county was working with Caltrans and the California Coastal Commission to see if might want to chip in. Seemann said he had been working on it, and it was hopeful.

The railroad authority applauded the county for doing all this research and preparatory work that, if successful, would fund the maintenance and restoration of its own property. The board urged Seemann to continue working, and it offered its full support. Or, almost full support. As one director made clear at the close of Seemann’s presentation, the authority itself wasn’t in a position to chip in.

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