At the end of six hours of testimony with nary a break for lunch Wednesday, the North Coast Railroad Authority board voted 6-0 to form a committee to study -- something -- just not what the Humboldt County Supervisors and State Assemblyman Wes Chesbro had requested.
The “ask” from Humboldt leaders was to form a committee to study railbanking as an option to protect and maintain the deteriorating railroad right-of-way, between Arcata and Eureka. The 1983 federal railbanking law allows a line that is out of service to be used as a trail in the interim, until rail service is restored.
It has been 15 years since a train has run on any tracks on the North Coast. The line has seen no maintenance and is rapidly deteriorating, as evidenced in a slide show and report from the Humboldt County Public Works Department.
In the motion they passed, NCRA directors agreed “to support formation of a Humboldt Bay Rail Corridor Committee to evaluate creation of trails, restoration of the rail prism [the rail bed] and restoration of rail service consistent with NCRA trail policy” as long as someone else pays their expenses to attend any meetings.
That sounded at first like a win for trail proponents, but the catch is the “consistent with NCRA trail policy” clause. Director John McCowen pointed out repeatedly that the NCRA has only a policy on rails-with-trails –- trails alongside a rail line. It has no “rail-to-trails” policy, which would allow removal of the existing line to create a bicycle and pedestrian trail along the bay.
A rail-with-trail project between Arcata and Eureka would cost more than $31 million vs. $4 million for a trail, according to a 2007 feasibility study.
Director Hal Wagenet said any use of the word “railbanking” would be “a non-starter” for him, so the committee’s name was changed.
The rail operator, John Williams of Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., attended the meeting. He admitted he has no current plans to restore rail service to the north end of the line and suggested Humboldt County come up with its own plan. In a previous letter, he said he opposes railbanking and he opposes any committee.
The NCRA board meets in Novato next month.
In the meantime, the Bay Trail Advocates have some very cool buttons to pass out and an active website: www.baytrailplan.org.