Speeder Raises Rail Concerns – August 19, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

HUMBOLDT – The Timber Heritage Association’s recreational “speeder” rides are becoming increasingly controversial and plans for a new, expanded run caused a stir after the group’s volunteers did unauthorized track work.

Safety and other concerns about the rides have led the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) to pursue a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) defining how they will be operated.

The Timber Heritage Association (THA) seasonal speeder rides began last June. This is the second summer that the THA has offered the rides from Samoa to Manila and the addition of a newly renovated rail car increased their capacity to 25 passengers.

The Speeder. TMc | Eye

And last weekend, the rides were to have ventured into new territory – the Arcata to Bracut segment of the NCRA rail line. But concerns about a potentially unsafe trestle led the NCRA to ask that the Bracut rides be halted and unauthorized track work by THA volunteers has raised questions about how the NCRA is controlling the use of its railroad right-of-way.

An Aug. 2 letter from NCRA Board Chairman Alan Hemphill to Marcus Brown of the THA outlines “two matters of an urgent nature” that triggered a directive to stop the Arcata to Bracut speeder ride. “First, it is our understanding that THA volunteers have engaged in track repair, including placement of rock fill, to a slip-out near Bracut,” Hemphill writes. He adds that an original agreement only “contemplated removal of brush from the right-of-way” and track repairs would have to be done under a “full environmental review.”

The NCRA was aware of the Arcata to Bracut ride, Hemphill continues, and although “there were no objections,” he states that “subsequent safety matters have been brought to our attention and until these are resolved we cannot permit you to operate on this track segment.”

Marcus Brown of the THA said that subsequent to receiving Hemphill’s letter, an agreement was reached to allow the Bracut speeder run in a limited form that stops short of the trestle and the area where the fill work was done.

He said his group has gotten clearance from the Federal Railroad Administration to operate the speeders but he described the unauthorized work as a “mistake” that his group has learned from.

Brown added that the rides are popular and appreciated. “People love those speeder rides – we are getting rave reviews,” he said.

But increased attention to the speeder rides is related to an upcoming lawsuit against the NCRA that will allege the agency is illegally segmenting its environmental review of railroad redevelopment. A July 29 letter to Hemphill from the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Humboldt Baykeeper, Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics includes a photo of a THA poster advertising the new Arcata to Bracut ride and describes it as “an invitation to the public to participate in a commercial business involving operations being conducted on NCRA’s rail lines.”

The letter refers to the NCRA’s draft Environmental Impact Report for redevelopment of the rail section between Lombard and Willits and states that concerns about piece-mealing “are only heightened by the fact that the NCRA appears to be allowing, encouraging and expanding commercial activities in sections where it explicitly states it has no plans for operations.”

NCRA Manager Mitch Stogner said the premise of the letter is removed from reality. “I’ve never seen such a misrepresentation of facts as I read in that letter,” he said. “And furthermore, they know it.”

He said equating the speeder rides with “commercial operations” of the railroad is “blatantly false.” Stogner added, “These are speeder runs by a non-profit organization to cover some of their costs” and he said the rides “fall under a whole different category in the eyes of all regulators,” including the Federal Railroad Administration.

But he also said that expanding the speeder rides and doing the Bracut track work “is clearly beyond what (the THA) has been authorized to do” and “everything is going to be on hold until we have an MOU with them.”

The rides from Samoa to Manila were approved by the NCRA’s board of directors in 2005 and the agency is covered under the THA’s liability insurance, Stogner said.

He also said over 300 advance reservations – essentially ride tickets – had been purchased for the Aug. 7 Bracut ride. Asked about the distinction between commercial and non-commercial operations in those circumstances, he said the rides have been done on an RSVP donation basis but the Bracut situation has highlighted the need for an MOU.

“This expansion of the speeder service has raised the level of the discussion,” said Stogner. “We need to get a better handle on these speeder runs, for safety reasons first and foremost.”

Scott Greacen of EPIC said the recent events are “troubling” and led to the July 29 letter. “It’s not at all clear what the line is between operations on the rail line and running equipment on the rail line when you’re charging money,” he continued.

Advocacy for using the dormant rail line for a bay trail wasn’t mentioned in the letter but there is tension between the THA and trail supporters. One context of the situation is that railroad use has to be accommodated in planning for bay trails and some people think the NCRA will never be able to extend freight service this far north.

“To think that we should sit on the rail corridor or let the THA guys basically use it for their hobby raises serious concerns for me about public accountability,” said Greacen.

The MOU for the THA’s use of the rail corridor is planned to be an agenda item for the NCRA board’s September meeting.

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8 Responses to “Speeder Raises Rail Concerns – August 19, 2010”

  1. Mike Pechner

    Just can’t understand what all of the hullabaloo is from EPIC and friends. Legally, the NCRA can authorize THA to run anything or do anything as long as the NCRA Board of Directors concur. The line has never been “officially” abandoned despite that it has dormant since 1998 thus NCRA or anyone else doesn’t have to have an EIR or anything else. Furthermore, lets say Port of Oakland wanted to rebuild the line to Eureka to run intermodal or containers. FRA says as long as they stay within the right of way, they can proceed without an EIR or anything else. Law says they (EPIC) or anyone else can not stop Interstate commerce. Last time I checked Federal law trumps State laws. EPIC can rattle their oars but there is not much they can do except do what they are doing and that is lying.

  2. Just my two cents, first this article reminds me of the V&T Reconstruction Commission, for the politics involved in the project. Luckily, since the land between Carson City and Virginia City is already an environmental wasteland, no such lawsuits over EIRs and FONSI approvals have happened here. And despite Harry’s Reid’s famous quote, “oil is killing us,” he still supported the use of smoke-belching oil-burning locomotives. We are lucky, indeed.

    But my point really, Mike Pechner, excellent comment, just one point: the idea that federal law always trumps state law is certainly not true in practice. For example, CA sued the EPA to be allowed to set more stringent emission standards and won in a high court. Similarly, Raich v. Gonzales (nee Ashcroft) was decided in a way that let the conflict live on.

    The Feds can raid dispensaries, but the court DID NOT strike down the state law. Since Wickard v. Filburn is used as precedent in these kinds of cases, it’s nice to see the states given some authority over their own affairs — as long as it doesn’t stop THA. Now if they’d just get those birdcages out of Portola!

  3. Theodor Woodings

    Only in Arcata, could environmental extremists twist something like a fun little train ride for the kids into a political uproar! Further, the facts of the matter were twisted to fit their agenda, The wash-out at Bracut had nothing to do with the slight movement of gravel that happened 300 yds further down the line. The volunteers only spread out gravel (that was already there) from one inside of a rail to the other. The wash-out was NOT filled!!!
    The folks giving the train rides are doing just that, offering train rides! They have no hidden agenda. They are just a nonprofit. Their flyers and website clearly state that the tickets are a “Suggested Donation” I took my family on one of those rides and they even offered Partial refunds of the donations because, all this only resulted in a shorter ride. I asked the gentleman if anyone asked for their donation refund and he answered that only one person out of 300 asked and was given their money back. People love these rides!
    These train rides have nothing to do with the fight between the railroad and the environmentalists. Please get the facts straight before crying wolf and trying to shut down a family friendly activity in our community.

  4. “Only in Arcata, could environmental extremists twist something like a fun little train ride for the kids into a political uproar!”

    “Please get the facts straight…”

    The four signatories to the letter protesting rail use and the Speeder were people in Redway, Eureka, Eureka and Sausalito.

  5. Alfred Doten

    The detail these signatories resorted to in order to kill what little fun in the fog there is these days in Humboldt County is what angers me. For the love of pavement and internal combustion what do these wackos think they are going to accomplish by sandbagging any rail revival north of the Golden Gate? In a region dominated by Indian Casinos, unemployment, tourism and dope…..is that it??????

  6. Cesare Caligari

    I believe that the crux of the matter is an association of interests that believe they could profit greatly by selling off the tracks and ties that some folks want removed. A great deal of profit could come to s few local and not so local folks.

    One thing that is usually overlooked is that the railroads in this end of the State are not abandonned. They are temporarily out of service. And the distinction is a matter of Federal jurisdiction. Where rails and ties have been stolen, those respopsible appear to be guilty of rather serious crimes.

    Using fictious environmental and safety “concerns” in order to cause real damage for profit is not a new thing. But it is still a shameful thing.

  7. Joshua Woods

    Stupid complainers who don’t ever want the railroad to operate again… People discust me…

  8. Cesare Caligari

    “EPIC” in a never ending quest to extort protection money from anybody who they disagree with tends to first make unfounded claims, then build future attacks on those unfounded claims as if they were well known facts.

    In the mean time, where people have been allowed to tresspass on the privately owned railroad property we have homeless camps full of trash and filth as well as crime hot spots.

    If anybody would bother to check the actual agreement that NCRA has with the Timber Heritage folks, they will see that THA is allowed to use the tracks from Samoa to Eureka. Unfortunately, the City of Arcata has torn out a section of track (and been told by the Federal Rail Authoruty that they must restore it), sold off the rails and the workwrs took the ties home. So even local government seems to feel that their wishes are above the law.

    I’m all in fgavor of the living histort preservation efforts of THA.

    I also want to see a hike and bike trail built along with an interurban trolley system, right down the center of Highway 101 where it won’t lead to bigger homeless camps and ready-made ambush sites.


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