June 30, 2005
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On the cover: A cyclist contemplates
the future of the railroad track alongside Hwy. 101 between Eureka
Photo by Kyana Taillon
Which way around the bay?
by JIM HIGHT
On a recent bike ride from Arcata
to Eureka, the cars and trucks speeding by remind me why I usually
avoid riding on Highway 101: It's a nerve-jangling ordeal. I
don't dare look up to catch a glimpse of the bay or the hills
for fear that I'll drift off the shoulder and into traffic.
But after crossing Jacoby Creek,
I pull over, lean my bike against a billboard, walk toward the
bay and stand on the old railroad tracks.
It's quieter here, and from
this vantage I can appreciate the subtle curves and arcs of the
sedge-covered shoreline, the way the water reflects the sky.
A row of old pilings makes me think about what used to be shipped
in and out of here.
Then two different visions for
the future of this deteriorating railroad around Humboldt Bay
come to mind.
One dream is an excursion train,
the Shoreline Special. It would embark from a depot in Old Town
and circle the northern half of Humboldt Bay all the way to Samoa.
Special packaged trips would include lunch at the Samoa Cookhouse
and a meandering return trip across the bay on the Madaket
The other idea is to turn this
publicly owned right-of-way into a trail where people could bicycle
or walk, ride skateboards, horses or wheelchairs, travel between
communities or just have fun. Such "rails-to-trails"
projects have been created all around the country, including
in McKinleyville, where the old Hammond railroad right-of-way
has been developed into a popular trail.
Right now, both ideas are in
preliminary stages, and the people backing them are careful to
say that their proposals might work together, that both a trail
and an excursion railroad could be created here.
But the realities -- a narrow
right-of-way and an extremely tight public purse -- mean that
the two ideas will probably end up competing for space and funding
if and when they move toward implementation. And the process
will be colored by one of the most difficult and oddly polarizing
issues on the North Coast: The future of the North Coast Railroad,
which starts 316 miles south near Petaluma and ends at Humboldt
The group proposing the Shoreline
Special is the non-profit Timber Heritage Association, formerly
the Northern Counties Logging Interpretive Association. Since
the late 1970s, the group has cooperated with the staff of Fort
Humboldt State Historic Park in Eureka to establish a logging
museum and set up an outdoor complex of vintage train cars and
Among its 200-plus members are
30 to 40 working volunteers who repair and maintain the group's
machines and operate them at events like the summertime "steam-ups"
held once a month at Fort Humboldt.
While the group's recent steam-up
was cancelled due to heavy rains, the events are usually quite
popular. They feature one of two small steam-powered logging
locomotives, The Falk or Bear River No. 1, pulling an open car
full of kids and adults up and down a short track. The heritage
association members even take their show on the road, loading
an engine, a rail car and portable tracks onto a custom-made
trailer, then hauling the gear as far as Sacramento to set up
With their remarkable physical
and mechanical competence, and their history of entertaining
and educating, the Timber Heritage Association members have inspired
respect for their Shoreline Special project. Hundreds of supporters
have attended fundraising events like a dinner in February where
they paid $40 each to dine on "classic railroad dining car"
The excursion railroad idea
also resonates with the owners of motels and other tourism-related
businesses. They see a train ride as an attraction that would
draw more visitors, especially overnight customers. A feasibility
study completed in 2003 by excursion-railroad consultants Stone
Consulting and Design (paid for by the city of Eureka with a
federal grant) verified the existence of a potential market.
In August 2002, the consultants
surveyed 337 people in Old Town, downtown Arcata and other places
in Humboldt County (240 of those surveyed were visiting from
100 miles away or more).
Over 90 percent of the respondents
were interested in taking a train ride around the bay, with most
favoring a one- to two-hour trip for $9 to $12 in open-air or
open-window coaches pulled by a steam locomotive. Sixty percent
of the tourists surveyed said they'd probably stay an extra day
in Humboldt County in order to ride the train.
The consultants used this data as well as
ridership figures from the Skunk Train, Napa Valley Wine Train
and other excursion railroads to estimate that 35,000 to 50,000
people per year would ride the Shoreline Special around Humboldt
But the consultants also made
clear just how expensive it would be to set up the railroad operation.
After reviewing an engineering study and making their own analysis
of the railroad's condition, the consultants estimated the cost
of repairing the tracks, building a depot and outfitting an engine
and train cars at between $5 million and $8 million.
Just for a steam locomotive
and a couple of passenger cars, the group is looking at about
$625,000. While it has purchased -- for $33,000 -- an 80-year-old
steam locomotive with historic ties to the North Coast, the old
No. 37 is still in Delaware awaiting an estimated $450,000 in
repairs. [in photo above]
To operate a passenger railroad,
the heritage group would have to bulk up to become a professionally
staffed organization. The group could use volunteers as car hosts
and off-season shop helpers, but it would need to hire a full-time
manager, as well as a train crew and shop employees. Liability
insurance alone would exceed $40,000 a year.
And even it they sell the projected
35,000 to 50,000 tickets a year, the Shoreline Special would
still require a "locally funded operating subsidy"
of as much as $100,000 annually, according to Stone Consulting.
In four years of fundraising,
the THA has raised about $100,000.
So, is the Shoreline Special
truly The Little Engine That Could? Or is it another grand idea
for a tourism attraction on Humboldt Bay that won't make the
Timber Heritage Association
Treasurer Mike Kellogg points out that the track rehabilitation
costs would not necessarily have to be borne by the excursion
train operation. "The consultant didn't really know how
to deal with the track," said Kellogg. "We probably
should have, in hindsight, said the track part should be left
out [of the feasability study]. Because to really do this the
correct way, we need the North Coast Railroad Authority to reopen
But the NCRA, which hasn't moved
a freight train across these tracks in eight years, is running
on fumes and waiting for tens of millions of dollars in long-delayed
federal and state funds. The NCRA board has also decided, for
economic reasons, to focus on repairing the line from the south
to the north. So there's no telling when or if the NCRA will
be able to invest millions of dollars in repairing the tracks
around Humboldt Bay.
pressed to explain how the project will make it economically,
association President Marcus Brown [photo
at right] expressed a hope that the
community would rally to support the Shoreline Special because
of its economic-development benefits. "The tourists are
already here, but they're driving by us," he said. "We
need the big hook, the big thing to get people to come here as
a destination. Then we can package all the other nice things
we have and give people several days worth of things to do."
Then he described what he calls
the group's "fallback position." It is an approach
originally suggested by one of the consultants who told Brown
it was left out of the feasibility study because it would mean
bypassing the city of Eureka, which paid for the study.
To avoid the most expensive
track repair job -- replacing a failing bridge between Eureka
and Arcata -- the heritage group could seek the North Coast Railroad
Authority's permission to upgrade the tracks from Arcata to Samoa.
"Basically we could get a bunch of volunteers and fix that
track," said Brown. "It's mainly replacing rotten railroad
ties at $65 apiece ... [and restoring] places where the gravel
is washed out."
Then the group would deploy
its recently acquired 1950s-era diesel locomotive -- not the
first choice of the people who were surveyed, but it's here and
ready to roll -- and start periodic excursions between the college
town at the north end of the bay and the company town on the
"We could have a little
weekend train ride staffed by volunteers and let the community
know, `Hey, we're alive and happening,'" said Brown, adding
that he has read articles about excursion trains that started
in this manner.
equestrians and bicyclists
My highway anxiety notwithstanding,
there are hardier cyclists who ride regularly on Highway 101
between Arcata and Eureka, and feel safe doing so, according
to Rick Knapp, vice president of the Humboldt Bay Bicycle Commuters
Association. But Knapp agrees that it's no place for a casual
rider. [photo at left]
may feel comfortable riding on that highway, and a lot of other
bicycle commuters do feel comfortable [but] there's a lot of
traffic, it's noisy and not a great environment for riding,"
"It's not a good place
for kids to be riding at all," continued Knapp, who is also
former district director for CalTrans. "You have large intersections
with right turn lanes, and [when crossing these] you have to
know where to position yourself on the roadway by judging the
speed of vehicles [coming up] behind you. ... You have to really
know how to ride a bicycle defensively to be safe along there."
Other routes around Humboldt
Bay are even more treacherous for bicyclists, not to mention
pedestrians. From Arcata to Manila, most of Highway 255 has only
a tiny shoulder; the Humboldt Bay Area Bike Map rates the route
as a "challenge [for] skilled riders."
And according to Knapp, the
only way to ride safely on Old Arcata Road is to place oneself
in the path of 45-mph traffic. "You can't ride along the
edge stripe and be safe," said Knapp. "You need to
be out in the roadway to be visible to motorists and not end
up being part of a sandwich." (A widening project to make
Old Arcata Road safer for bicyclists and pedestrians has been
delayed for several years, according to Knapp.)
For these and other reasons,
Knapp is one of many advocates of turning the Humboldt Bay railroad
right-of-way into a non-motorized trail. "It would be a
terrific thing for commuters and for recreation, and it would
be a draw for the area," he said.
"It would be really nice
to have a multi-use trail in that corridor," echoed Spencer
Clifton, director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments.
"It would get quite a bit of usage by equestrians, pedestrians
and bicycles. You'd be along the bay with natural resource access.
It would be a very attractive facility."
A multi-use trail between Arcata
and Eureka has been identified as a goal in HCAOG's regional
transportation plans, and Spencer's board -- made up of one county
supervisor and one elected official from each of the seven incorporated
cities -- recently directed him to explore the concept with the
At a railroad authority board
meeting earlier this year, Clifton learned that the NCRA board
had no interest in letting any part of its railroad be made into
a trail. The board, a joint powers authority of Sonoma, Mendocino
and Humboldt counties, wants to keep its options open for the
Humboldt Bay section. "The policy of the board is not to
have rails to trails, but rather to have trails with rails where
this is feasible," NCRA Chair and County Supervisor John
Woolley told the Journal.
Regarding the Shoreline Special,
Woolley said the board is "open to considering any business
plan from any operator to use all or a portion of the railroad."
Rails with trails projects have
indeed proven to be feasible in many locations, with barriers
or median strips constructed to allow trains and people to share
the same right of way. But rarely, if ever, has such a dual-use
transportation system been developed on a right-of-way as narrow
as the one around Humboldt Bay, according to a report from the
Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Nonetheless, HCAOG will work
with the trail specialists at Redwood Community Action Agency's
Natural Resources division to study the possibility of a rails-with-trails
setup on the right-of-way around Humboldt Bay. They plan to walk
the railroad corridor in July, taking measurements and surveying
conditions. "Since it's something the board directed me
to pursue, we intend to continue exploring ways in which we can
surmount the challenge" of sharing the right-of-way, said
it doesn't take a field trip to know that building a trail alongside
the railroad will be far more expensive and difficult than dedicating
the whole right-of-way to a trail. For one thing, crossing creeks
and sloughs would be a costly challenge. "We'd have to figure
out how to cantilever off the side of existing bridges,"
Knapp predicts that a rail-with-trail
could only be accomplished by building up a new road bed alongside
the existing track surface. "You'd have to build it up to
protect it from the tides," he said. "You'd have to
fill wetlands, and getting approvals to do that is as difficult
as finding operating subsidies for a railroad."
Additionally, a tall fence would
probably be needed to separate people from trains -- and that
would impact the views of passing motorists, perhaps even the
riders on the Shoreline Special.
But it's important to note that
pulling up the tracks and converting the railroad to a trail
would also cost a lot of money. No agency has made an estimate
of how much, nor is anyone likely to do so while the railroad
authority board says it will not consider a rail-to-trail transition.
Once a key element in the region's
timber economy, the railroad has been sidelined by shifting economics
and storm damage inflicted on its tracks in the remote and rugged
mainstem of the Eel River. Many people on the North Coast view
the railroad's revival as distinctly unlikely, if not impossible.
On the other side are many citizens
and leaders who view restoration of freight rail service as a
key to pumping up the regional economy. Many environmentalists
support restoring freight service because trains are more fuel
efficient than trucks, and because they hope a freight railroad
could someday add passenger rail service. (For more on the NCRA's
prospects, read the Journal's May
29, 2003 cover story.)
The bottom line for the Humboldt
Bay railroad right-of-way: the NCRA board has said "maybe"
to the Shoreline Special, "maybe" to a rails-with-trails
concept, and "no" to a rail-trail that would interfere
with its future ability to drive trains.
For some trail advocates who
doubt the viability of the railroad, the NCRA board's posture
is infuriating. "The railroad is just a boondoggle, a waste
of money," said Will Spurling, a trail supporter and owner
of Henderson Center Bicycles in Eureka. "If it comes back
it will only be with a lot of tax money supporting it."
Spurling is similarly dubious
about the Shoreline Special's prospects. "I don't think
enough people will buy tickets to cover the costs of running
it," he said.
Larry Buwalda, another bike-trail
supporter, is more supportive of the excursion railroad promoters.
"Seeing that the [Timber Heritage Association] has put so
much energy into it, I'm in favor of the tourism railroad if
it is something that can really go [financially]," said
Buwalda, who owns Adventure's Edge bicycle and outdoor store
"But if that doesn't fly,
I'd want to go forward with a rails to trails program,"
Jim Hight is a freelance
writer in Arcata. or call (707) 822-2628.
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