Railroad politics — it’s getting pretty grim, folks.
Let’s extract two points from our recent cover story about the North Coast Railroad Authority (“The Squeeze,” July 3). First, the authority and its supporters will block any move to convert the dead and decaying train tracks around Humboldt Bay for use as a bicycle and pedestrian path. Though these tracks have been fallow for 10 years, Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley, a member of the NCRA board of directors, insisted at a recent trails meeting that the entire railroad line, from Humboldt Bay to the San Francisco Bay Area, was due to be up and running again by 2011. That figure was taken from the authority’s own planning documents — in particular, a “strategic plan update” dated February 2007. If the trains will be back so soon, there’s no point in putting in a trail only to rip it up in four years’ time.
Second, Marin County is starting to get nervous about restored freight train service through its territory, particularly through the city of Novato’s newly renovated downtown. They’re even more nervous about the fact that they can’t get solid answers on how many trains the NCRA plans to run in the coming years. At first, they were told six 12-car trains per week. Then, after much cajoling and the discovery of an internal NCRA memo written by NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner, they were told that it would perhaps be 32 trains per week, some of them as long as 60 cars. But probably only six trains of 15 cars each. Novato residents have since been up in arms, and in recent days the issue has played out in Bay Area radio and television news reports, and in the local paper.
At the Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, July 10, it came to a head. Supervisors expressed great frustration at their inability to get straight numbers from the NCRA. This failure is placing pressure on a regional agency called Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART. SMART is a proposed commuter transit system that will go back before voters in Sonoma and Marin counties next year. (It failed once before, barely.) In preparation for the vote, SMART is preparing a required environmental document that must take into account the cumulative impact of freight and passenger service. Hard to do, with the NCRA’s shifting numbers. But after 20 minutes of spirited discussion, the Marin Board of Supes voted 4-0 to send a strongly worded letter asking SMART to “completely and fully” supplement their environmental report with solid NCRA freight estimates.
Wait a second, though. The high estimate on the table down in Marin County — 32 trains per week — only takes into account traffic originating purely on the south end of the line. What about the huge number of trains from the north end, the ones that supposedly will be coming down the track by 2011? Well, unlike here in Humboldt County, where that date is driving all kinds of public policy, apparently the Marin powers-that-be consider that date a farcical joke. And the NCRA is apparently perfectly content to let them think so.
“NCRA has some big dreams,” Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan told his colleagues at their meeting last week. “Some of them, I think, are frankly ridiculous and speculative. The business of going up through the Eel River Canyon — it’s about a $200 million venture, might take 30 years to do. Who knows if that’s going to materialize? ... Right now, NCRA has been very clear that for the next 20 or 30 years it isn’t going to be able to get up the Eel River.”
Right now, the NCRA has been ... what? No, indeed. Here in Humboldt County, anyway, they are clear on no such thing. As stated above, their official planning documents, dated from just a few months ago, give a timeline of work that ends with the reopening of the entire line in just four years. And that’s why the NCRA stands in the way of the only cheap and realistic option for a pedestrian trail between Eureka and Arcata. That’s why the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District spends its way to bankruptcy, trying to promote a new shipping port that will depend on the railroad for transportation of goods.
I called McGlashan, who also serves on SMART’s board of directors, to ask him where he got his figures — $200 million, 20-30 years — since they seem to contradict everything we’re hearing, and everything the NCRA’s own strategic plan is saying. McGlashan said that he recalled the NCRA’s own Mitch Stogner mentioning those figures in testimony before the SMART board in June.
I e-mailed Stogner, asking if this was the case, and if so, how does one account for the discrepancy between what he’s telling SMART and what he’s telling us? Five minutes after sending my message, Stogner called me on the phone. And I spent the next hour talking with a very weary, beleaguered man.
The first thing he wished to get out of the way was that his memory did not square with McGlashan’s. “I don’t know what meeting he’s recalling it from,” Stogner said. “I’ve never talked about anything taking 30 years — that’s just not part of my vernacular. I don’t recall having said anything like that at all.” (I left a message with SMART General Manager Lillian Hames, hoping she could resolve the matter; she didn’t return the call.)
But the question remained. By 2011, or not? There was no straight answer in our long conversation. There are innumerable factors to take into consideration, and the NCRA doesn’t even know what all those factors are. The authority would have to undertake an environmental and financial assessment of the costs involved in reopening the rocky and remote Eel River Canyon section of the line. It would then, somehow, have to find the money — as little as $150 million, maybe, or as much as $500 million or more. Then it would have to physically repair all 316 miles of its track. Also, in order to justify running any trains to Humboldt County, one of the other of the big, rail-heavy North Coast projects on the table would have to be permitted and built: either the massive new gravel mine on the banks of the Eel River, or the massive new container port on Humboldt Bay.
So all the stars would have to align, said Stogner, but yes, that’s the plan — 2011. “That is our current best estimate,” he said. “That is the plan we’re proceeding under.”
How strange, then, that this plan is completely out of the picture when it comes to Marin County and SMART. Why is that? This question, one feels, is destined to be answered in Marin County Superior Court, when the gathering anti-train forces there sue SMART for publishing an environmental document that doesn’t consider the NCRA’s “current best estimate.” SMART — a project meant to alleviate the chronic traffic difficulties in Sonoma and Marin — could be the second worthwhile endeavor to be killed by the NCRA, after the Humboldt Bay bike trail.
What’s remarkable is that even without the Humboldt County traffic, Marin is flipping out. Even the 32 trains per week estimated for the south end of the line, only — even that number has plenty of people in the richest county in the United States very riled up. They don’t want the noise, the pollution or the impacts to traffic. (The railroad crosses streets 54 times between Windsor and Napa.)
The Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting last week was filled with plenty of invective aimed at the NCRA, and all agreed that the county would, in the future, play a more active role in the authority. Supervisor Judy Arnold, who took one of Marin County’s vacant seats on the NCRA board when all this erupted, said something that will surely send chills up the railroad authority’s collective spine. “There’s no question about the fact that the NCRA has a lot of political support in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.,” she said, “which I think it’s time for us to start looking at.”