In a meeting in Ukiah this morning most notable for its air of defeatism, the board of directors of the North Coast Railroad Authority — never before known for shying from scuffles — voted unanimously to cautiously support potential legislation that would dissolve it forever.

Even though it was the last item to be discussed on today’s agenda, the shadow of that draft legislation — Sen. Mike McGuire’s Senate Bill 1029 — hung over the chambers of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors almost from the moment the NCRA board took its seats, and abruptly altered the direction the board seemed ready to take on several regular-business matters, from a fish restoration project on the Eel River to the sale of assets on Eureka’s Balloon Track.

The proposed McGuire legislation seems to have broken the back of the authority, which just months ago was as pugnacious and ready to take on all comers as ever it had been. It filed papers with the United States Supreme Court seeking to overturn a California Supreme Court ruling, while at the same time its executive director, Mitch Stogner, floated the idea that the legislature could provide new, regular sources of funding for the public agency that was asking the federal high court to undermine its own laws.

Instead of that, the legislature — or McGuire, at least — seems to be more in the mind of doing away with it altogether. Director John McCowen, who sits on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, told his fellow directors that members of an ad-hoc NCRA committee dealing with legislative matters had met individually with representatives from McGuire’s office over the previous week, and what they heard was not encouraging … at least from the standpoint of the 30-year-old state railroad agency’s long-term future.

“[Their] message was, ‘We really want to hear what you think. We want to hear your recommendations,’” McCowen told his fellow directors. “But my impression was that they were pretty clear about the direction they wanted to take.”

In reality, as more than one director noted, McGuire’s action comes at the tail end of a remarkable year-long effort by the state bureaucratic apparatus to reel the authority back into the fold, or into reality. In July of last year, the California Transportation Commission called the authority’s directors to appear at a public hearing, at which point they were roundly berated and asked to prepare a “shutdown plan.” They followed this up with an official recommendation that the legislature should convene a special commission to sort out what to do with the authority, which has managed more than 300 miles of mostly dead track between the Bay Area and Humboldt County since the mid-‘90s.

In response, the NCRA prepared what it called a “draft strategic plan” to present to the California Transportation Commission, in which it finally conceded, 20 years after the last train to Humboldt ran, that it would never be able to reopen the section of the line between Willits and a point just south of Scotia — the so-called “Eel River Canyon” section of the railroad, built along steep banks and on top of nightmarishly slippery soils. It allowed that it would be willing to “railbank” that section of the line, in exchange for a hefty payments of funds from some other state agency.

Instead, the McGuire plan seems to be to railbank that section of line with no payment, and to simply eliminate the NCRA instead. The tracks from Willits to the Bay Area would be handed over to some other entity capable of running trains — possibly Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit — and the northern end, from Arcata to Willits, would be given over to a new agency, which McGuire’s bill will call “The Great Redwood Trail Agency.” This new trail agency would have the option to fix up track and run trains on the very northern tip of the line, around Humboldt Bay and a little south, if it so chooses.

Seeking to soften the blow somewhat this morning, Stogner — one of the authority’s only full-time employees — reminded the NCRA board that McGuire’s proposal is still only in draft form, and that the bill, when introduced, will pass through numerous committees in each house of the legislature, and will undoubtedly be amended dozens of times.

“It’s a structure,” Stogner says. “It’s a framework. The detail will come later.”

The big issue will be funding — where will the money come from to retire NCRA’s old debts, or to build trails along the Great Redwood Trail agency’s right of way? His implication: There would be many opportunities to shape, or oppose, the bill.

But many of the directors, including McCowen, seemed inclined to take events philosophically.

“We do need to distinguish between NCRA as an entity and the mission for which it was created,” he said, noting that McGuire’s legislation mirrored the key planks of the strategic plan the NCRA eventually presented to the CTC — rail service in the south, a trail north and the outside possibility of trains along Humboldt Bay. The only difference was in whether the NCRA existed to administer those things.

Following this point, Director Caryl Hart — a trails and open-space advocate who was attending her first meeting as one of Sonoma County’s appointments to the NCRA board — said that if McGuire’s legislation mirrors the NCRA’s own stated priorities, perhaps the board should consider officially supporting the legislation. 

“I think that would be very well received by him and others at the state level,” Hart said.

Her colleague from Sonoma County, Director David Hagele, agreed. Supporting the legislation, he argued, would give NCRA board members a seat at the table as the McGuire bill moves forward.

“This isn’t about us,” said Hagele. “It’s about who we’re serving, who we’re representing.” The communities along the line will inevitably have interest in what happens to the NCRA assets going forward, and the individual members of the NCRA board would be better positioned to advocate for their home towns if the NCRA did not fight dissolution.

This argument carried the day. Hart made a motion to express support for McGuire’s dissolution bill, insofar as the bill conforms to the NCRA’s own strategic plan, as presented to the CTC, as it goes forward. All seven board members present voted in favor, and the motion carried.

Earlier in the meeting — and with the McGuire legislation in mind — the board again put off selling or leasing railroad assets through Eureka’s Balloon Track to the property’s owner, Rob Arkley’s Security National. A Caltrans representative at the meeting warned the board that any attempt to dispose of property “in the current political environment” would likely be heavily opposed by the California Transportation Commission.

Director Richard Marks, who represents Humboldt County on the NCRA board, argued that instead of attempting to get rid of the property, the board should pursue finding tenants to rent and rehab the problem building on the site. NCRA staff agreed to look into this alternative.