North Coast Railroad Authority Dodges Legal Challenge, Supports East-West Study



Today's meeting of the North Coast Railroad Authority's Board of Directors saw plenty of impassioned arguments, lots of squabbling over legalese and at least two cases of hurt feelings. The two most notable results were these:

1) The board voted 8-1 to delete key parts of a 2011 resolution, thus invalidating an environmental impact report that it filed just two years ago and which was financed with $3 million of public money from the California Transportation Commission, and

2) The board joined a long list of government agencies in approving a resolution in support of a feasibility study for the mythic east-west rail line, but only after scratching out some of the language and adding some terms of its own.

By backing away from the environmental impact report, the board hopes to sidestep a legal challenge from two environmental groups -- Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics -- that are suing the state agency, alleging that the report doesn't comply with state environmental law. (See the groups' letter to the board here.) It's also an apparent admission by the board that it has no plans in the foreseeable future to rebuild the north-south rail line through the Eel River Canyon, which has been out of commission since 1999.

Hurt feelings No. 1: Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, was offended by what he felt were derisive comments from board member John McCowen about environmental groups. But he was more offended by the board's actions.

Those groups weren't the only ones upset. Leishara Ward, a transportation planner with the California Department of Transportation, stepped to the lectern to say that the board should either abide by the terms of the EIR or return that $3 million.

In response, NCRA board members and staff made a curious argument: They said that even though they don't believe their agency is bound to comply with the terms of the EIR, the $3 million in public funds that paid for it wasn't a waste because, hey, there's still a lot of good data in there. As NCRA legal counsel Chris Neary said, "The environmental impact report will stand as an informational document."

Hurt feelings No. 2: Board Chair Paul Kelley said he was annoyed that it took the Land Bridge Alliance, the organization pushing for an east-west rail study, so long to approach the NCRA board. This was quickly smoothed over.

At board member Bill Kier's suggestion, language was added to the resolution stating that a) the feasibility study should include the existing north-south right-of-way as a viable alternative, and b) it should address financing for the project.

Kier made a veiled reference to a certain local businessman who said in a radio interview last October that the whole project "pencils out" with private funding. Proponents are now advocating a public-private partnership, and Jan Kraepelien, one such proponent, suggested financing the study through the Headwaters Fund.

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