Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

The Train Geeks Return



You know what I just remembered? It's nearly 2011! And do you know what that means? It means that the North Coast Railroad Authority is just a few short months away from relaunching railroad freight service to and from Humboldt County. Yes, the repairs must be nearly all in place. The tracks between here and the Bay Area, shuttered these last 13 years, are probably all polished and oiled, and we can expect those big locomotives to come chugging into town any day now, pulling cheery carloads of Christmas loot behind them.

Wait a minute. You say this is incorrect? You say that rail service to Humboldt County as dead as it has been for a decade, or even deader? You say that not even the NCRA itself can pretend it has any hope of restoring service to Humboldt County any time in the foreseeable future? You say that it hasn't even managed to open any track at all yet, and its scattered and outdated mission statement, along with its bullheadedly clueless management, continues to make enemies at every turn?

Huh. Then I guess former Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley must have been mistaken back in the summer of 2007, when he bravely stood by the authority's blatantly fabricated official projections, and announced, to this newspaper and to the county, that train service to Humboldt County would be restored by the year 2011. And that therefore people who might want to build an intercity hiking/biking trail on the decaying public right-of-way should please get bent.

The whole sad tale was told in a Journal cover story at the time (see "The Squeeze", July 5, 2007). In short, the story was this: That the North Coast Railroad Authority, a state agency that owns most of the track between here and Marin County, blindly pursues an impossible mandate. It has to move lots and lots of goods if it is to have any chance at all of operating at something approaching a balanced budget, yet it can only move a small amount of goods through the urban counties at the south end of the line if they are not to revolt. It has to pretend to have plans to reopen the Humboldt County portion of the line if local calls for rail-banking and trail construction are to be squelched, yet the near-bankrupt agency needs several hundreds of millions in investment to even take a stab at reopening the geologically sketchy section of the line that runs along the Eel River. In any case, there aren't enough goods coming in or out of here in the post-timber era to make it worthwhile.

And yet the railroad authority refuses to die. The sheer bureaucratic inertia of the thing means that the NCRA may well plod along forever, its grand return always scheduled about four years in the future. Its curious organizational chart means that absolutely no one is responsible for its unbroken 20-year record of absolute failure. And maybe that's what Tom MacDonald, one of the NCRA board's renegade members from Marin, meant when he addressed the Marin County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

"If we are going to create accountability, it flows to the public through you," MacDonald beseeched the Marin Supes. "That's why we're asking for your help."

MacDonald and his colleague, Marin County NCRA Director Bernie Meyers, were begging the Marin County board to hold hearings on the railroad authority's relationship with NWP Co., the private company that in 2006 was awarded exclusive rights to run freight on the still-imaginary line. Meyers had just submitted an authoritative written report on this shaky deal. The NCRA, essentially, awarded NWP a hundred-year exclusive deal, for which the company -- which counts former Congressman Doug Bosco among its investors -- paid nothing. Bosco's former Congressional chief of staff, Mitch Stogner, was and is the executive director of the NCRA.

Meyers and MacDonald are hoping to get the contract renegotiated and/or overturned. Why? Probably not only because it is obscene on its face. There is also that fact that NWP's public fact, John Williams, has been taking to bullying Marin County and Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which wants to open commuter passenger service on the same lines. (SMART actually owns the deed to the rails on the very south end.) Williams has, in the past, made outrageous protests against SMART's desire to place trails along its section of line, threatening legal action if such trail-building were to move forward. He's also insisted on setting his own timetable for his still-imaginary freight service, claiming primacy over commuter trains.

So Marin County agreed to MacDonald and Meyers' request to call NCRA onto the carpet at a future meeting. Maybe they'll even succeed in ousting Williams and Bosco. Will it make any difference to us, here in Humboldt County? Not likely. I expect someone to say, soon, that there'll be trains here by 2015.

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