Photo: Friends of the Eel.

Late last month, just a handful of days before Christmas, a Marin County judge ordered the North Coast Railroad Authority to pay two Humboldt County environmental groups more than $1.9 million in attorney’s fees — a consequence of the groups’ successful lawsuit against the public agency, which went all the way up to the California Supreme Court.

The order marks the final act of the NCRA’s quixotic, fruitless, 20-year quest to reestablish rail service between the Bay Area and Humboldt County. Last year, state Sen. Mike McGuire sponsored (and Gov. Jerry Brown signed) legislation that will eventually dissolve the authority and begin work toward building a pedestrian trail along its right-of-way.

This most recent legal blow stems from a lawsuit brought by the two environmental groups — Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternative to Toxics — that challenged the railroad authority’s failed attempt to argue that it is not bound by the California Environmental Quality Act, despite the fact that it is a California state agency. After several rounds in lower courts, the California Supreme Court ruled for the environmental groups. The railroad petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, on yet another appeal, but the high court declined.

As the new legislation puts the railroad authority in a tight financial straightjacket and the dissolution of the agency pending, the nearly $2 million awarded to CATS and Friends of the Eel might be the last major expense the North Coast Railroad Authority will bequeath to the taxpayers of California. 

“This adds another layer of debt to their hot mess of a budget,” McGuire told the Outpost Friday. He said that it’s not yet clear how the debt will be cleared — certainly the authority has no funds to clear it — but that he and his colleagues had been planning for a “worst-case scenario” with the courts.

For the time being, the authority — which meets in Eureka tomorrow — continues on in a neutered fashion. McGuire staffer Jason Liles attended a meeting of the board or directors in October, and according to the official minutes Liles repeatedly warned the NCRA to butt out of railroad matters. According to the minutes:

[Liles] said the bill is the NCRA closure and transition to trails act, and if the Board and staff are not spending 80-90% of their time on trails then they are not following the new state law. He advised Board members that are not ready to work on trails, promoting trails, or invest their time in trails to step down from the Board. He said the state mandate has clearly changed and that NCRA needs to focus on trails, not freight, and if that Board does not agree to the mandate or have time for trails, then those members should step down.

This morning, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors reappointed Supervisor Estelle Fennell to the NCRA board despite a brief challenge from Supervisor Mike Wilson, who spoke of this changing mission and of his district’s experience in railbanking and related manners. Fennell assured her colleagues that she has no problem with the NCRA’s mandate, and that, along with her previous experience on the board, seemed to carry the day.

The North Coast Railroad Authority Board meets Wednesday, January 9, at 10:30 a.m. in the Board of Supervisor’s chambers in the Humboldt County Courthouse. Among the items on the agenda: an update on the Annie & Mary Trail between Arcata and Blue Lake, an agreement with the Timber Heritage Association on local speeder runs in 2019, and a few other items of local interest. See full agenda here.