Rail With Trail Could Prevail – November 27, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

HUMBOLDT – The work of a North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) subcommittee has yielded a turnaround – railroad supporters and trail advocates have been convinced that combining their efforts will get the best results.

The NCRA’s board met in Eureka on Nov. 14 to review the recommendations of the Humboldt Bay Corridor Subcommittee. Made up of three NCRA boardmembers, the subcommittee held a series of meetings last month and ultimately urged residents to stop battling over use of the vacant and deteriorating bay rail line circling the bay.

Trail advocates had originally pushed for creation of a subcommittee to consider railbanking the Arcata to Eureka section, which would allow a trail to replace the railroad bed. But after a marathon hearing, the NCRA board instead approved a subcommittee that only considered rail with trail options in accordance with the agency’s policies.

By all accounts, the subcommittee’s meetings were productive, featuring a variety of presentations on the bay line’s condition, what it will take to improve it and the potential for railroad revival and trail development.

And its recommendation that railroad redevelopment and trail construction be approached as mutually-agreeable goals has apparently been heeded. During last week’s public comment session, Judy Hodgson of the Bay Trail Advocates group referred to an earlier comment from Subcommittee Member John McCowen, who said his group had done “a fairly credible job.”

“I think what you’ve done in the last short number of months is a fairly miraculous job,” said Hodgson, adding that her group “absolutely supports” the subcommittee’s findings and recommendations.

Among them is the finding that railroad supporters, trail supporters and various agencies “have a common interest in that their diverse interests can be best achieved through close collaboration.”

The subcommittee’s recommendations include having the NCRA support a “broad-based community coalition” to seek funding to restore the bay line and pay for rail with trail development. At the final subcommittee meeting in late October, audience members were told that if they’re at odds over how the rail corridor should be used, controversy will ward off funding opportunities.

And that message appears to have been accepted. SunGnome Madrone, a natural resources specialist who helped establish the Hammond Trail, once was a strong advocate of railbanking. “But I’m here today to tell you that, no – I think it’s good to do a rail and trail, both of them,” he said. “So you’ve convinced me, through your meetings, that that’s the best way to go.”

“The community is finally showing some signs of coming together,” said Sid Berg of the local Building and Trades Council chapter.

Merritt Perry of the GHD engineering firm was a presenter at one of the subcommittee’s meetings, having done a cost assessment of upgrading the NCRA’s bay rail infrastructure. “I do think there’s real potential to develop an implementation plan for both the trail and an excursion train without excluding the long-term vision of either,” he said.

John Williams is president of Northwest Pacific Railroad Company, the NCRA’s operator, and he noted a subcommittee finding that freight and passenger rail service will only regain “a relatively small portion of rail restoration costs.”

“The same is true of trails – so you need to find that trails can’t support the construction and maintenance and operations of the trails through user fees, just as a railroad in this market can’t support that,” he said.

Williams added that the “elephant in the room” is the cost of building a trail and restoring the railroad. “That’s where the focus should be in terms of a unified effort,” he said.

Jan Kraepelin of the East-West Railroad Advocates group said if a rail connection is established through a new east-west line, the funding for both trail and bay rail development would materialize. “The benefits are so huge, we have to consider that in the context of the rest of the things that are being proposed,” he continued.

McCowen, who worked in the subcommittee along with NCRA Board Chairman Clif Clendenen and Boardmember Bill Kier, noted a political change in the rail/trail scenario.

“I think we are developing a very broad-based community consensus of, ‘Let’s move forward with rail and trail – let’s make it work,’” he said.

The board directed its staff to work with subcommittee members and come back with finalized versions of the subcommittee’s report and a resolution on the NCRA’s response to it. A meeting will be held in Eureka next month for definitive action.

 

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