Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Good-Bye To All That

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According to the date on the bottom of this page, it has been 28 days since I last smoked a cigarette. This is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life to date, even though I've had a big assist from some high-powered and probably inadvisable pharmaceuticals. I feel it now, the knot twisting around at the bottom of my gut, goading me to give up and dash to the nearest liquor store. To punch it down I go blank for a couple of minutes, rewiring my brains from the inside. Sometimes I consider shooting up heroin for a couple of days, just to see if it really is easier to kick.

But my thrilling success to date has made me as cocky and arrogant as a penniless Plaza bum, and as blissfully self-involved as the most spiritual SoHum hippie. I have found my center. And now I'm going to use it to kick my other principal addiction. Generally, that is the great daft dream to turn Humboldt Bay into an entrepot in the Asia trade. Specifically, it is the North Coast Railroad Authority.

There's no point in rehashing the whole thing. By now, 99 percent of the population either knows all there is to know or will never care. (If you happen to fall into that 1 percent, you can find plenty of info in our online archives at northcoastjournal.com.) I, for one, continue to be fascinated by the fact that a surprising portion of public policy in Humboldt County continues to be set by the railroad authority, a state agency with an unbroken 10-year record of failure and incompetence. I'm endlessly amazed by the gumption of the railroad directors, who until recently have told absolutely everyone absolutely anything they wanted to hear just to keep their strange bureaucracy alive, no matter that what they told one person was flatly contradicted by what they told the other. I never fail to be tickled by their deeply religious belief in the railroad's second coming, despite the fact that it has powerful enemies on just about every flank and absolutely no cavalry anywhere on the horizon. To me, it is a grotesquerie of political pathology.

But I grow obsessed, and not everyone shares my taste. There's only one new thing on the horizon, and that's the likely victory of the city of Novato in its lawsuit against the railroad authority, which is scheduled to go to trial next week. A Novato victory will mean that the railroad authority will have to put its plans down on paper before spending anymore taxpayer money dinking around with the line. This will kill the NCRA -- to state the plan is to kill it, as its directors and supporters have subconsciously become aware -- but it will be a slow, gruesome, convulsive death. Perhaps the state legislature, which foolishly created the railroad authority 20 years ago, will come along with a pillow and put it out of its misery. Barring that, though, we're looking at another decade of the ridiculous status quo.

Allow me one more fond look at the thing before we part. The railroad authority met in Eureka last week, and it was edifying as ever to witness the catastrophe first-hand. When I got there, the board was listening to John Williams' plan to destroy a planned rapid transit system in Sonoma and Marin counties. John Williams -- a small, bald, fireplug-built bundle of rage -- is the front man for the shadowy NWP, Inc., the private company whom the NCRA last year awarded a 99-year exclusive contract to run freight on its line in exchange for zero dollars and zero cents. At this point he may actually be NWP, Inc. -- he and he alone. No one knows.

The public board had handed off to Williams, a private party, the task of drafting comments in response to a supplemental environmental impact report that was being prepared by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), an agency that wants to put a sales tax measure to build mass transit on the ballot in those two counties. The fact that SMART had to prepare a supplemental EIR in the first place was a result of the NCRA's ever-wobbly freight projections. Now, whether through malice or incompetence, Williams and the NCRA looked to do with the supplement what they had done with the original. In particular, Williams held, the planned pedestrian paths that SMART looked to build beside its commuter rail line were too close for his theoretical fleet of engines; Williams wanted them to start over and design the trails at least 100 feet from the track (into land the agency does not own).

Shortly afterward, the railroad authority finally took action to allow the trail construction on the Annie & Mary line, the old tracks between Arcata and Blue Lake. Williams, who never fails to refer to any railroad assets as if they were his own personal property, began to get testy. "He" had good some good switches and signals and things on the other side of a certain road; he wanted assurance that the trail people wouldn't touch "his" gear. He was assured.

But Williams went volcanic when the city of Arcata made its little presentation a moment later. The city had identified funding for a study of potential trail routes along the railroad's right of way through the town, and wished for the authority's blessing. The city's Karen Diemer assured directors time and again that the study would be done in full expectation that the railroad would be coming back. This calmed some stomachs on the dais, and there seemed to be a tentative agreement to support the city's application. So Williams got up. "You have no right to do this!" he screamed at the board, his trail-phobia burbling up and overflowing at the thought. The board, alarmed, instantly sought to placate the fellow. And so the city, which had been politic enough to pretend that the preschoolers' choo-choo train was real, was thus rewarded.

And so we close the curtain on this cast of characters, whose story grows stale. Ever shall it be thus -- no trains, no trails, no big container ships, just a mammoth bureaucratic spin-out. Onward.

 

Quick addendum to this week's cover package, the bulk of which was graciously provided by our heavy-hitting cousins at the Sacramento News & Review. First, we are pleased to welcome Richard Wall to these pages for a six-week run of his temporary column, Alt Prez. Here's how Wall pitched his column: "The Alt Prez column will read like a warped political version of American Idol, with deluded losers and promising dreamers begging for attention in America’s sideshow election ... Each column has a brief introduction that addresses an essential issue of third-party/independent campaigns (such as the concept of 'throwing your vote away'). A profile features one or two of the probable top-10 finishers, followed by subheaded, entertaining snippets about other candidates -- the nutcases, jokers, and earnest citizens from all over the political spectrum."

Though Wall writes from Florida, his pitch was clearly tailor-made for Humboldt County. We're trying to get him to keep it going straight through to Election Day, but he'd only commit to six installments.

Secondly, Mary Ann Lyons-- the leader of the Humboldt County Obamanauts, profiled in Bob Doran's brief sidebar (see Obama's Go-To Woman in Humboldt) -- called in at the last moment to let everyone know that she'll be hosting a "watch party" at Humbrews in Arcata next Thursday, Aug. 28. The occasion? That would Obama's massive acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, which will temporarily relocate to Denver's Mile High Stadium for the evening. Come on down to Humbrews, watch the speech on the widescreen and celebrate with your fellow change-seekers.

Finally, the Journal would like to salute Humboldt State University professor emeritus and all-around good guy Don Garlick for his steadfast service to the community. As you'll see inside, Garlick is sadly abandoning "Garlick's Notebook," his column of scientific curiosities, after 50 awe-inspiring installments. This isn't the kind of "change" Barack is talking about!

Care to pick up where Professor Garlick left off? Do you have the cred and the chops, and a 15-year-old copy of MacPaint? Drop us a line.

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