Rails and trails up in the air

To the Editor:

Since private NWP Co. stopped making lease payments to the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) months ago, the public railroad seems headed for some type of radical status change or restructuring. Ironically, after about 15 years without rail service on the NCRA tracks, NWP Co. finally began operating earlier this year from Napa to Windsor in the South. Thus, as NWP Co. developed its own revenue stream, it has put the NCRA at risk. While the details of the NCRA-NWP Co. financial dispute are unclear, it is believed that the NCRA cannot continue much longer without technical default on obligations.

Meanwhile, there have been dramatic developments in support of both trails and rails in Humboldt in recent months. Advocates for the Humboldt Bay Trail have had numerous meetings with influential local groups and obtained unanimous support from both the Humboldt County supervisors and the NCRA board for a committee to study options. Trail advocates expected it to be a broad-based citizen’s committee with ties to dozens of local organizations and constituencies. Instead, the NCRA created a committee of its board which has held three well-attended meetings in Eureka on three topics: 1) the environmental degradation of the NCRA corridor along the bay was on 9/28/12 2) updated cost estimates for a rail with trail from Eureka to Samoa was on 10/12/12 and 3) prospects for resumption of rail service in Humboldt was on 10/26/12.

Much has been learned through the NCRA committee’s public meetings. Dave Anderson informed that all of the NCRA culverts around Humboldt Bay need to be replaced and necessary remediation of this defacto dike could cost about $30 million. Merritt Perry updated previous rail with trail cost estimates and provided substantiated figures. Eureka to Arcata estimates were $18.4 million and Arcata to Samoa were $26.4 million. Replacing culverts could cost $200,000 each. Steel I beams could be attached to bridges across the Eureka and Butcher Slough Bridges to create paths there. These rail with trail estimates were substantially lower than before, based on updated, detailed cost studies.

The final NCRA committee meeting on 10/26 included presentations from NWP Co., Timber Heritage Association (THA), Caltrans, east-west rail advocates and Humboldt Bay Trail advocates. NWP Co. owner John Williams estimated that refurbishing NCRA tracks would cost $500,000/mile, outside of the Eel River canyon. A passenger excursion train with 50,000 riders/year could cover operating expenses, but only 15% of refurbishing cost. This analysis excluded potential rail freight. About $30 million would need to be invested. Major assumptions: public grants, private investors and low permitting costs.

THA’s Pete Johnston noted that his group has rail cars that only need to be painted and inspected, but the track would be NCRA’s responsibility. Caltrans reviewed its 101 corridor enhancement plans and acknowledged long term concerns with culverts. An opportunity exists to coordinate with the Coastal Commission and support the CA coastal bike trail. East-west rail feasibility study advocates noted support from 33 agencies among others, but the precise route, location to connect to the national rail system, costs and funding sources remain unclear. Bay trail advocate Rees Hughes reiterated the compromise that $5 million could convert the NCRA corridor from Eureka to Arcata into a transportation-recreation trail (vs. $18 million for rail with trail) and the THA could still operate an excursion train from Arcata to Samoa, site of THA’s proposed train museum.

It is notable that nobody suggested to the NCRA committee that the NCRA track along the Eel River canyon of Mendocino/Trinity/Humboldt could be viably refurbished for rail use. That begs a question: Will we preserve the public’s right of way and convert it into a non-motorized trail or will the corridor continue to deteriorate from disuse? In 2011, over 10,000 people signed petitions urging rail to trail conversion along the Eel River. However, questions on NCRA’s economic viability and plans for the NCRA corridor along Humboldt Bay seem destined to be decided first. The dream of a long distance Eel River trail lives on.

Given the divergence of views regarding the NCRA’s Humboldt Bay corridor, there is compelling logic that a community consensus including highway, rail and trail goals may be the only scenario that can get state and national support for the required public funding. The NCRA’s Humboldt Bay committee report to the full NCRA board meeting will be closely watched. It happens on 11/14/12 (Wed.) from 9:30 a.m. in the supe’s chambers on the first floor of the County courthouse in Eureka. All who are interested are encouraged to attend.

Chris Weston

Eel River Trails Association