To the Editor:
Suddenly, it was as if you could hear a pin drop in Tuesday’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting. That’s because Lisa Hoover explained how her scientist husband, Greg Jennings, died riding a bike along a busy Humboldt County highway, because we lack safe non-motorized trails. The more than half-full chambers remained respectfully quiet for a few minutes. Saving lives, promoting exercise for good health, enabling safe and free transit between cities, reducing our carbon footprint and fostering jobs with economic renewal and entrepreneurial activity were among the expected benefits mentioned for the proposed Bay Trail.
Over three hours were devoted to listening to speakers and discussion of the grand compromise proposal which would enable the Timber Heritage Association to have an excursion rail between Arcata and Samoa/Fairhaven. At the same time, the Supes would appoint a committee to do a feasibility study of railbanking and interim conversion of the NCRA corridor from Eureka to Arcata into a non-motorized trail for bicyclists, equestrians, hikers and other users.
The BoS meeting was the culmination of over 200 meetings with interested parties by a citizens group comprised of Dennis Rael, Rees Hughes, Judy Hodgson and Don Banducci. After such extensive consultations, the Bay Trail proposal seemed like a genuine compromise. In fact, the Humboldt County Public Works Dept. formally presented the proposal to the supes. Although fewer in numbers, rail diehards also attended, but predictably opposed the Bay Trail. In fact, railbanking regulations are expressly for the purpose of ensuring preeminence of rail use on old, unused rail corridors. Railbanking has enabled hundreds of interim trails nationwide. In several dozen cases, railbanked corridors have actually been returned to active rail use.
Unfortunately, rail diehards appear to believe this must be a zero sum game, either all win or all lose. Indeed, rail enthusiasts are promoting the idea of doing feasibility study on the East-West Rail concept that might go from Alton/Carlotta to Red Bluff. The good news is that an East-West corridor could be planned to accommodate a non-motorized trail from the start and assuming it does, ERTA supports the concept. However, many believe it would take decades to complete an East-West Railway, as the Willits 101 bypass has been discussed since the 1950s and only now is construction afoot. Thus, claims that a new East-West railroad could be functioning within five years sounds like wishful thinking. It would be great if it could happen.
Supes Ryan Sundburg and Virginia Bass both expressed concern that the initial Bay Trail F.S. proposal wording could cause people to think that the Supervisors might not still be receptive to the East-West Rail Feasibility Study proposal, expected to be presented soon. Sup. Sundberg said he had originally thought the East-West Rail idea was "environmentally impossible", but has not made up his mind, since David Hull and David Tyson insist otherwise. Thus, staff was asked to offer modified wording to make it clear that the East-West Rail idea will be considered and also that the Bay Trail must not negatively impact private property owner’s rights, yet consider the interests of equestrians. The ERTA also fully supports equestrian-compatible trails.
Responding to concerns that interim trails would doom any chance for rails to return, Friends of the Eel River’s Scott Greacen informed that the US Surface Transportation Board had just issued guidelines May 30, 2012, that railbanked corridors/trails are subject to being "cut off at any time" for resumption of rail service. To the claim that easements could be lost due to interim trail use, I informed that I had personally spent weeks at the Humboldt Assessor’s office and did not see any private property parcels over which the NCRA trunk line passes from the Mendocino border to Samoa. Easements over private land exist on the Alton-Carlotta spur and perhaps also on the Annie and Mary Trail from Arcata to Bluelake. In any case, US courts have consistently upheld the validity of railbanking’s protection of public rights of way for nearly 30 years now.
Sup. Lovelace asked for clarity on plans for the trunk line corridor and affirmed that "the NCRA is the right body to answer that," however he also expressed concern the rail is currently at risk for "defacto abandonment.” Lovelace demanded that NWP Co., the Leasee of the NCRA, "immediately take action to shore up the levy" as it "jeopardizes public infrastructure." Almost no maintenance has been done north of Willits on the NCRA corridor in nearly 15 years.
It was gratifying to hear BoS Chair Bass say she was involved with trails for a long time and considers both trails and rails to be good. Sup. Clendenen feels the East-West Rail and the Bay Trail are not “mutually exclusive, but might happen in very different time or space." He also noted that HCAOG numbers "show an order of magnitude difference" to retrofit existing rails with trails, as opposed to conversion of rails to trails. Clendenen then summed it up: "We should be open to anything that comes along." Please support local trails. The next NCRA Board meeting is in Eureka Wednesday, July 11, at 10:30 a.m. in the BoS chambers. It should be interesting.
Founder, Eel River Trails Association