It's no great pleasure to pop someone else's balloon. Over the last couple of weeks, the North Coast Journal — and your correspondent, in particular — has found itself involved in painful correspondence with old friends, and with strangers with whom we would otherwise have no beef. The subject of these recriminating conversations is the grand plan to rebuild the railroad and the Port of Humboldt Bay, a plan about which we have often discussed with a great deal of skepticism. Specifically, the subject is the North Coast Railroad, the government agency that owns the 10-years-dead railroad tracks from Humboldt County to the Bay Area.
"Well, have you killed the railroad yet?" says one person.
"So I'm a nutjob for believing in the railroad, huh?" says another. "Why don't you think about what you say before you say it?"
"Please don't spread falsehoods about the railroad," says a third. "Your information is outdated."
There's no question that these people are trying to achieve something for their community, according to their lights. They're not getting paid for it. They're not evil, and they're not duplicitous. That is to say, they're not consciously duplicitous. It's just that they've accepted a dubious premise: The future of our county, our children, our economic well-being, even our medical care, depends solely and entirely on the rotting railroad being brought back to life. When the stakes are this high, niggling little questions about the viability or desirability of such a project seem outrageous and possibly sinister.
Well, to make it clear, we don't hold anything against the folks who have been remonstrating with us over the railroad issue. We're startled at the gigantic fraud of the whole enterprise, and we're stunned at the militancy of those who have so allied themselves with it so fervently, and we're flabbergasted that after, lo, these many years, people still talk about it as if it hadn't been dead and deteriorating for a decade. But earlier this month, after the back-to-back meetings of the railroad authority and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District, we came to understand that these things are not the fault of any one person or cabal of people, but of the strange bureaucratic inertia that has enveloped the railroad ever since the public took over operation of it in the early '90s.
This is an atmosphere deadening to the senses, in which the impulse to swindle anyone within reach is blandly accepted as a dull, everyday event. At issue in the twin meetings earlier this month was an out-of-the-blue proposal to go after $19 million in state funds earmarked for traffic congestion relief. The railroad authority and the Bay District dropped down a proposal to use such funds to rebuild the northern Humboldt section of the line, from the Avenue of the Giants around the bay to Samoa.
The failures of the proposal were many, and were pointed out by skeptical board members and commenters from the public. The proposal itself contained absolutely no data to suggest that there was any traffic between Samoa and Avenue of the Giants to relieve. Likewise, it didn't even attempt to sketch out a rationale by which the rechristened railroad would relieve such congestion, even if there were any to relieve. The private operator contracted to run trains for the NCRA, John Williams of NWP Inc., said in the grant application that he could ship 6,000 cars per year from Avenue of the Giants to Humboldt Bay, but he refused to identify any potential customers. Likewise, he said that he was sure to get state-required matching funds for the project by applying for a grant from the federal government, even though he had not yet applied for such funds.
Despite these many failings, all of which were pointed out clearly to both the railroad authority and the Bay District during their public meetings, both agencies voted to press ahead, and some of the members of the board displayed a certain degree of astonishment at the idea that anyone would question that decision. The two railroad board members representing Marin dissented, as did Mike Wilson and Pat Higgins on the Bay District, but mostly it was accepted as a matter of course. If there's money out there, more than one board member argued, why not try to snatch it?
This, in a nutshell, is the logic that by itself has kept the railroad authority operational even though it runs no trains. For some reason, it only applies there. Flip it for a moment. Imagine that Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley, who sits on the board of the railroad authority, had received a request for a large grant of Humboldt County funds. The request contained no details whatsoever about what county problem the potential grantee hopes to solve, and no details about how the potential grantee proposes to go about solving it. Imagine, indeed, that Woolley knows from personal experience no such problem exists. What does he do in that instance? He immediately throws the proposal in the trash, and from then on he views the applicant with a great deal of suspicion and mistrust and perhaps even muses about possible legal action to keep such a threat to the public coffers at bay.
But when he puts on his railroad hat, somehow everything is different. He considers it his duty to grab whatever dollars for the railroad possible, based on whatever false pretenses can be invented. And this attitude boils down to the general railfan public as well, the core public base for the railroad that imagines it as a sort of all-purpose panacea for everything that ails us. At the meeting, Marcus Brown of the Timber Heritage Association stood up and said that the plan to snag traffic congestion relief funds was the first hopeful sign he had seen in a long time. And now, naturally, people were out there questioning it.
"There are people out there who want to kill the railroad," Brown said, and the sadness and indignation rose in his voice and poured out his eyes. "They just want to kill the railroad!"
You might ask: How can you kill something that doesn't exist? The unavoidable answer is that Brown wasn't really talking about an actual, physical railroad. He was talking about the railroad in his imagination, the railroad of his dreams. It conjures up pleasant images of hard-working men in striped blue caps and suspenders, making an honest living with their hands in a just and pleasant world. Thatrailroad — that ephemeral, wispy steam engine receding into the distance — is all too easily destroyed, alas. If you want to preserve it, you've got to try to limit your contact with the world as it exists.
We've long hada soft spotfor the Bigfoot Valley News, the weekly freebie out of Willow Creek that bills itself as "A purely positive read!" Its pages have always brimmed with befuddling displays of pure childlike innocence. Happy-news press releases from government and business alike are ripped and run prominently. Corny columnists in the back pages abound. It's always seemed to us that the News occupies a soft-focus, slightly fictionalized version of Humboldt County, and at times we've mused about how nice it might be to inhabit that Shangri-La. Sometimes boredom is a small price to pay.
But we must say that the Newsoutdid itself in its edition of Jan. 9. In a column on page 3, editor/publisher Yvette Troyna delivers the good news:
"Here at Bigfoot Valley News we've chosen to focus on a single resolution for 2008. We've analyzed the needs of our community. We've surveyed, brainstormed and visualized [!] how to best meet our mission to provide positive news and support our local economy in an Earth-friendly way ...
"After weighing it all, we've discovered that we need to make some valuable changes to responsibly accommodate the needs of our community. A combination of up-to-date online news, combined with an eco-friendly monthly printed publicationwill provide an excellent way to meet the combined needs of our advertisers and readers." (Emphasis added).
See what I mean? You've got to admire a reporter who can find the positive angle in her own newspaper's demise. Eco-friendly! If only we could all be so chipper when they come to carry us to the gallows.