A whole lot of money and a whole lot of cargo. That's what a draft report says is necessary to build and pay for a railroad between the Samoa Peninsula and the national rail system in the Central Valley. Restoring the north-south line would also cost a bundle — more than $600 million, according to the report. And in order to maintain a viable railroad, Humboldt Bay would have to be transformed into one of the busiest ports on the West Coast.
Commissioned by the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District and financed with $19,500 in Caltrans money, the report is still in draft stage. In it, BST Associates and Burgel Rail Group, of Washington and Oregon respectively, say constructing an east-west railroad would cost $1.07 billion to $1.24 billion, depending on the route.
Three possible routes are identified. One arcs north of Blue Lake then down toward State Route 36. The second snakes south through Eureka, Loleta and Fortuna to Alton, where it turns east. And the third heads south along 67 miles of existing rail lines before punching east through the mountains near Fort Seward.
The ground underneath all three routes would be problematic. "The geology of the North Coast Range presents significant challenges for the sufficient siting of a railroad alignment," the report notes. The authors spotted numerous landslides along the proposed routes and warn, "If an active or ancient (inactive) slide is discovered, then mitigation must be proposed and implemented. Even then, a slide can be reactivated with devastating and costly consequences."
Among the report's findings:
For the east-west rail to be economically feasible, Humboldt Bay would need to export at least 11.5 million to 18.5 million metric tons of bulk cargo per year — more than Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Stockton, Long Beach or Los Angeles.
Humboldt Bay would likely need a deeper navigation channel to handle that much cargo. "Such a deepening project would likely be costly."
The Samoa Peninsula would probably need new rail infrastructure, a bulk terminal, a new dock, storage facilities and handling equipment.
The annual maintenance cost for the east-west rail could range from $18 million to $20 million.
For the most part, rail distances from the Sacramento Valley to Humboldt Bay don't offer shippers an advantage over existing ports.
"In conclusion," the report says in something of an understatement, "development of rail service to Humboldt County is likely to be both high cost and high risk."
The final report will be presented at Thursday's Harbor District meeting.
Note: This story has been modified from a previous version to clarify that statistics refer to bulk exports.