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November 9, 2006

 In the News

Weak signals


It's Tuesday afternoon in the particular corner of the space-time continuum inhabited by this column. They say the first results from Congressional races back east will be reported in an hour or so. The results from California are farther off. I sit on pins and needles, and I'm jealous of you, dear reader. Right now, you probably know a number of things that I'm absolutely famished to know. Tell me, did Jerry McNerney really pull off that amazing upset against Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), the North Coast's biggest enemy in Congress? How did Tom Allman's grassroots bid to become sheriff of Mendocino County fare -- and how did Mendo vote on its anti-war advisory measure, Measure Y? Is Kinky Friedman the new governor of Texas? Is Martin O'Malley the new governor of Maryland, and what does that say about Tommy Carcetti's chances during the next season of The Wire?

And what, pray tell, has become of Proposition 1B, the largest bond issue ever put before California voters? Put aside all the bickering over this Home Depot and that fluoridated water supply -- Prop. 1B, a sleeper proposition, has been high on the minds of a surprising number of Humboldt County power brokers. It would allow the sale of about $20 billion in new state bonds for transportation improvements around the state, and there's plenty of folks up here who want a bite of that sandwich. There's the highway people, who hope that whatever crumbs are left in the doggie bag after San Francisco and Los Angeles have their feast will be earmarked toward improvements on Highway 299. Currently, that's Humboldt County's best hope of getting a road that will actually allow industry-standard sized trucks to penetrate the Redwood Curtain. But it'll be expensive, and there ain't currently enough dollars to do it.

Then, of course, there are the port and rail people, dancing as ever to their own singular tune. Young Eureka up-and-comer Moss Bittner -- he went to Harvard, you know -- made a presentation at the board meeting of the Harbor District a few weeks ago. He told the board that he had attended a few regional transportation meetings on fact-finding missions, just to bone up on what would be required to get a piece of that hypothetical cash for the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that owns the railroad line between Humboldt County and the Bay Area. (The line has been dead for nearly 10 years now, but its reopening is always somewhere just over the horizon.)

Bittner told the Harbor District board that they should immediately get behind an NCRA push for some of those 1B dollars, should they come to pass. Reason: As everyone knows, the railroad and the port -- the latter only slightly less dead than the former -- have long dreamed of the day when, together, they will rise from the ashes and spiral toward the stars, putting hundreds or thousands of Humboldt County residents to work hauling in goods from China and shipping them down to the city. Both rail and port would need, conservatively, hundreds of millions of dollars each in infrastructure upgrades, and the project would have to be subsidized to the tune of millions per year. But that's the dream, and they're sticking to it.

So 1B, if it did pass, will mercifully let them dream a while longer. Or will it? There's tons of bad scoobies on the railroad front, scoobies even worse than the astounding dollar amount the project requires. Remember a couple of months ago, when the NCRA hired a new operator -- the company that will run the trains for them? Remember how this company -- named NWP Co. -- is a partnership, and one of the partners is a great big gravel manufacturer who was hoping to get access to the NCRA's big quarry behind Island Mountain, in the remote Eel River Canyon? Remember how the company was saying it would haul 4 million cubic yards of rock per year out of the quarry -- 40,000 rail cars per year? Remember how this was going to kickstart renovation of the line and bring some money into the NCRA's empty coffers?

Yeah, about that... Turns out that it's not likely to be as easy as they had thought. The hope had been that the mine would not require a new gravel extraction permit, because the NCRA had one for the stagnant quarry for years and years. But now that is apparently not the case, as the permit appears to be non-transferable to a private party seeking to sell the rock (back in the day, the railroad just used it for repairs to the line). New permit application. New environmental impact report. Lawsuit, anyone?

"When I'm really clear that people are lying to me, I just no longer trust them," said Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Nadananda on Monday. "Anything they say at this point is a pure waste of time. A new mine is not permitted in a wild and scenic river -- that's enough for me."

Meanwhile, the NCRA goes before the California Transportation Commission this Thursday (Nov. 9) to ask for $25 million in "traffic congestion relief" funds that the state had allocated to the agency some years ago. The money would be spent trying to fix up the line between the Bay Area and Willits, and to clear the ground for a renovation in the Eel River Canyon. John H. Williams, the Palo Alto-based president of NWP Co., said Tuesday that he was "cautiously optimistic."

People who like Amy Goodman's syndicated Democracy Now! program really, really like Amy Goodman, and they really, really, really like her Democracy Now! program. Sometimes it seems that they won't be content until Democracy Now! is always available, on-demand, wherever they happen to find themselves and in a variety of easily digestible media formats -- radio, television, newspapers, books, live appearances, major motion pictures, talking holograms à la R2-D2.

See, it's not enough that the program can be heard loud and clear twice a day throughout most of the county, at 9 a.m. on KHSU and 12 noon on KMUD. It's not enough that you can hop to your computer at any hour and stream today's program, or any of several years worth of past programs. No. Amy's gospel must ring fine and true across the entire media landscape. A couple of years ago, there was a serious movement to demand that Jefferson Public Radio, operators of two Humboldt County public radio stations, also add a third and possibly fourth broadcast of Democracy Now! to the Humboldt County airwaves. People organized; angry letters were sent north to JPR's Oregon headquarters. The Oregonians held fast, though, and the movement crumbled, leaving the Humboldt County Amy-ites to wander away, muttering oaths.

For these people, the full-fledged members of the Church of Amy, the program is the primary bulwark against the full military-industrial takeover of their minds. America stopped being a free country long ago -- perhaps it never was -- but so long as you can still huddle `round the radio and listen as Amy broadcasts truth to power from the belly of the beast, her hallowed "Firehouse Studio" in downtown Manhattan, there is still hope in the world. So what happens when the television version Democracy Now! suddenly disappears from cable public access Channel 12, just weeks before a major American election? When it's replaced by ballet and symphony performances, public service announcements and a feed from KHSU-FM? A spasmodic freak-out -- that's what happens.

"Lots of people have been calling," said Jan Kraepelien, a member of the Humboldt Community Media Center board of directors, on Tuesday. "People have been very upset."

Part of it's the timing. The St. Louis-based Suddenlink Communications, Inc. only recently took over the local cable franchise from Cox. Not much is known about Suddenlink, except for the fact that they are a major media corporation. And therefore it stood to reason that the company would do anything in its power to silence the voice of brave Amy at a time when there's a down-to-the-wire Senate race in the corporation's home state.

It stands to reason, but according to Kraepelien it isn't so. In fact, he said, the loss of Democracy Now! is purely due to technical difficulties. The satellite dish the station uses to grab the program has malfunctioned, and the technician that usually repairs it has been called out of the county due to a family emergency. When he gets back -- probably by the time you read these words, according to Kraepelien -- Amy and FSTV should be back up quickly. Probably by the end of this week.

So once the election is safely behind us and the Republicrats are again returned to power, you can have your Democracy Now! back, Humboldt County. You will once again be able to watch Amy's lips move as she asks unusually tough questions of the members of the corpocracy, and also as she pitches those long, slow, crowd-pleasing softballs to Noam Chomsky et al.



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