The Little Train That Won’t

by Daniel Mintz, December 28, 2010

Humboldt County planning staff has expressed seri­ous doubt about the North Coast Railroad Authority’s rail redevelopment goals and the chairman of the county’s Planning Commission has described the agency as “a place where old politicians go to get in the public trough.”

The odds of re-establishing rail operations through the Eel River Canyon to the northern end of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) line were analyzed at a December 16 draft General Plan Update hearing. And the degraded condition of the dormant Humboldt section of the railroad was the basis for some provocative criti­cism of the NCRA.

Planning commissioners considered Update policy lan­guage on railbanking the NCRA’s Arcata to Eureka stretch so that it can be used as a trail. Railbanking is a process that declares a rail corridor to be abandoned but preserves it for “re-emergent” rail use.

In the meantime, other uses, such as trails, would be enabled. In the Humboldt Bay area, there’s an ongoing debate over the best use of the NCRA’s rail line.

The NCRA opposes railbanking it. A December 15 letter to the Commission from NCRA Chairman Allan Hemphill on behalf of the agency’s board of directors informs that any interference with future railroad use contradicts the state mandate that established the NCRA.

But there’s intense debate on whether the railroad has a future in Humboldt County. Commission Chairman Jeffrey C. Smith was part of a majority of commissioners who agreed on leaving the Arcata to Eureka railbanking out of the policy. Smith noted the northern rail corridor’s lack of maintenance, however, and used strong words to describe the NCRA.

Smith said he found it “almost disgusting” to read in Hemphill’s letter that the NCRA is tasked with improving and maintaining the rail line. “I don’t know what they’re doing, maybe it’s just a place where old politicians go to get in the public trough but I have seen nothing that’s an improvement since that railroad has stopped running,” he continued.

Earlier, county Senior Planner Tom Hofweber said that the odds of reviving rail operations through the Eel River Canyon to the north end of the NCRA line should be considered. County planning staff believes that it “looks very doubtful,” Hofweber told commissioners.

He also cited a study sponsored by the Eureka Redevelopment Agency on establishing a Humboldt Bay tourist train, which found that restoring the rails will be expensive and there’s limited ridership potential.

“It did not look, on the face of it, to be very economically viable,” Hofweber said.

He added that railbanking agreements include clauses on resuming rail operations. Asked by Commissioner Dennis Mayo if post-railbanking lawsuits have ever been filed to prevent the return of rail operations, Hofweber said that they have and he allowed that the process is “legally complex.”

Commissioner Mel Kreb said the maintenance of the railroad through the Eel River Canyon is of “utmost importance” but conflict over what should happen could prevent anything from happening.

“My biggest fear here is that people will spend so much time fighting over this that eventually it will dissolve,” said Kreb. “We’re already seeing the threat of lawsuits if the railroad tries to go back into the Eel River Canyon and lawsuits filed south of the Eel River Canyon before the railroad could be put back to use there.”

Kreb said “there’s something missing here for me” and requested more information and commentary, particularly from the county’s Harbor District, whose dormant port would rely on a railroad link if it, too, is redeveloped.

He was part of the minority of commissioners who supported policy language on railbanking the bay stretch, saying that using it as a trail would draw people to the county and improve the tourist economy.

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