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News blackout

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One blogger last week accused the Journal of a news blackout on the topic of the Bay Trail. It's mostly true. When I volunteered to work with trail advocates in March, Journal Editor Carrie Peyton Dahlberg and her staff decided no coverage while the story is unfolding.

The original Bay Trail Advocates' plan was to ask the city councils of Eureka and Arcata, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, and ultimately the North Coast Railroad Authority -- as the legal owner of the right-of-way -- to consider railbanking the corridor north of Eureka. Once railbanked under federal law, the right-of-way would be preserved forever for the return of rail service, but in the interim, it could be used as a bike and pedestrian trail. (We propose two projects: a rail-with-trail from Samoa to Arcata and rail-to-trail from Arcata to Eureka. See www.baytrailplan.org.)

The Journal editorial staff felt that whatever coverage they did on a pet project of the publisher, the person who signs their paychecks, would be perceived by readers as biased. I agreed. But I also agreed to write a periodic update -- as a trail advocate -- in my publisher's column.

The Bay Trail Plan proposal and the significant questions it has spawned have now been on the public agenda and vigorously discussed eight times in the last three months. The plan has been before the Humboldt County Association of Governments' Technical Advisory Committee, HCAOG's board of directors (June and July), the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Arcata and Eureka city councils, and the NCRA board on July 11 and again last Wednesday in Novato. I was there at each meeting.

My report to you as a trail advocate is -- so far, so good. I'm not saying our proposal to railbank was warmly received. It was not, largely because the 1983 law has been so widely misunderstood. But now, as of last week, we have a committee of three NCRA directors who will look at three things: the feasibility of a trail, plus the feasibility of repairing and maintaining the crumbling rail bed between Eureka and Arcata, plus the feasibility of the return of rail service. The committee will start work in September, hold public meetings here on each topic, and report back in November. The full NCRA board still meets monthly in other counties, but this subcommittee of three directors hopes to conduct its meetings and produce a report and recommendations by the next time the NCRA board meets in Eureka -- November. There are good reasons for this timetable, which I'll discuss below, but first I want to respond to those testifying at those eight meetings who accused Bay Trail Advocates of being anti-railroad.

Baloney.

There are only four members of the Bay Trail Advocates and we love railroads: Los Bagels' owner Dennis Rael, retired Humboldt State administrator Rees Hughes, me, and -- our newest member -- Don Banducci, co-founder of Yakima and a longtime member of the Timber Heritage Association. (We purposely kept the core group small and very focused these past months because we knew we had a gantlet of agencies to negotiate to have any chance of success.)

Our official position is that we support the return of rail service to Humboldt County when and if it is feasible. There have been no trains run in 15 years on the line. There have been two suggestions for the return of rail service in recent years, but no viable plan on the table. We believe the return of rail could not occur for a minimum of 10 years. A more realistic estimate might be 20 years. In the meantime, there are other pressing needs in this community that can be addressed by using the public right-of-way for bike and pedestrian transportation and recreation.

What about the Rob Arkley-backed east-west rail line proposal? This "Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group" wants to use the right-of-way, including the 6.5 miles between Arcata and Eureka, to connect our deep-water port to the national rail system south of Redding. The group wants to build a new, 125-mile-long rail connection east through two national forests -- possibly to ship Montana coal to China or to bring containerized cargo from the Far East to America's heartland. We don't know because no one has named any potential customers. Now this is a topic the Journal has been covering regularly, (See "Choo-Choo Fantasies," May 24, www.northcoastjournal.com.)

The Bay Trail Advocates do not oppose the east-west plan. In fact, I personally support the feasibility study or any other idea for economic development of this region. I just don't want public funds spent on it until someone produces a viable plan that includes potential customers. Show us the customers. Until then, this is a private business venture that we should stay out of.

Why are we asking that this new NCRA committee complete its work by November?

? Humboldt County has been pretty much ignored by the NCRA these past 15 years. We are at the end of the Northwestern Pacific (NWP Co.) rail line, and restoration of north end is the NCRA's lowest priority. (The NCRA spent $64 million successfully rebuilding 62 miles of rail service on the south end last year. It is a viable rail project that will hopefully be sustainable.)

? There has been no money spent on maintenance on the line in Humboldt County in 15 years. We are losing this public asset.

? NWP Co. President John Williams admitted at the NCRA meeting here in July he has no viable plans to restore rail service in this county in the foreseeable future. None.

? The rail prism (rail bed foundation for tracks and ties) is crumbling into Humboldt Bay, further exposing Highway 101 to storms, tidal action and rising sea levels.

? Rarely have we had such strong and knowledgeable representation on the NCRA board. We currently have two members, Bill Kier of Blue Lake and Supervisor Clif Clendenen (who serves as chair), on the NCRA board of nine members representing four diverse counties. Both men have volunteered to serve on the new NCRA committee along with Mendocino Supervisor John McCowen. That will change after November, since Clendenen lost reelection in June.

We all have very short memories. On Feb. 15, 2007, the NCRA adopted a Strategic Plan Update proposing to reopen the Eel River Canyon by mid-2011 and the line around Humboldt Bay by the end of that year. That clock ran out long ago.

We are asking that the NCRA pay attention to the needs of Humboldt County. We want this NCRA committee to do the work it is tasked with completing in a reasonable timeframe: to engage local agencies and stakeholders, to look at the wealth of currently available information -- including the 2003 Humboldt Bay Revitalization Plan and the 2007 Humboldt Bay Trail Feasibility Study and that 2007 Strategic Plan Update -- and to create a report to the full NCRA board with recommendations to be considered by November.

Those who want to delay this work are voting for the status quo.

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