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Naughty or Nice 

The Santa Train was set to leave Willits station at around 2:30 p.m. Saturday, and most of the kids were pretty well pumped. Greg "The Train Singer" Schindel, magnificently mustachioed troubadour of the rails, was working the queue, sneaking in a rendition of "Working on the Railroad" among seasonal fare like "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Finally he belted out a theatrical "Aaaaallll aboard!" We claimed our seats and set out for Santa's Workshop, which turned out to be a gaudily lit affair in the woods a few miles west of town. As it happened, St. Nick was present. He climbed aboard, gathered wish lists and posed for photographs.

A successful outing, all in all. Someday, though, my kids will turn 7. At that point -- fingers crossed -- Thomas the Tank Engine will give way to Yu-Gi-Oh! and baggy-pantsed Nickelodeon hip hop acts. Someday, God willing, not even the Power of Grandma will coax them to jump up and down for the choo-choo. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Such were my somewhat melancholy thoughts as we started home north up 101, driving over the old North Coast Railroad Authority crossing that Caltrans recently tore up and paved over.

The makers of The Polar Express knew what they were about. In this day and age, the world of the 19th century railman shares psychic space with Kris Kringle and his strange posse of elves. Belief in one implies a love for the other. Or vice versa. This phenomenon, which I freely hand over to the psychology faculty for further study, is usually confined to healthy pre-adolescents. But sometimes, gentlemen, it slips through the boundaries of that dreamlike state -- jumps the rails, as it were -- and exhibits in fully grown adult males. Further: If an epidemiologist were to map the condition, I posit that we would find an extraordinary concentration of red push pins centered around the remote northern coast of the state of California.

The North Coast Railroad Authority -- the state agency that nominally runs the 10-years-dead rail line between Humboldt County and the Bay Area -- is never shy when it comes time to compile its wish list. This time last year, it was hoping to gank $19 million in state traffic congestion relief funds to "relieve" the "traffic congestion" between Eureka and Avenue of the Giants. Details were sketchy, but it seemed that this "relief" would come in the form of opening new gravel mines in the Eel and Van Duzen rivers, then shipping said gravel to Humboldt Bay by train. The California Transportation Commission was just as confused as you are; it turned down the project summarily.

Now there's a new Santa in town. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to spend up to $1 billion in a new economic stimulus package aimed largely at updating America's infrastructure to 21st century standards. The railroad authority, unsurprisingly, believes that it has something to fit the bill. In a letter to Rep. Mike Thompson dated Nov. 20, authority chairman Allan Hemphill submits that a chunk of O-funds could complete the restoration of freight service between Willits and Napa, which certainly someone could use for something.

The railroad authority proper isn't the only agency that sees an opening. The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District -- the railroad authority's partner in the fantastic dream of turning Humboldt Bay into a significant port of call in international trade -- is going to ask Obama Claus for some $73 million to "modernize" two docks for that purpose. This at a time when larger ports all along the West Coast are laying off workers in droves for lack of ships. A draft of the Bay District's request shows that it's also thinking about asking for another $3.3 million to help build the Timber Heritage Museum, a proposed showcase of ancient train equipment that's at least as important as a fiber optic line or a Minneapolis bridge.

What neither proposal seems to mention is that the railroad authority, on which the Bay District's plans depend, is essentially completely bankrupt. The authority just settled a lawsuit with the city of Novato, which sounds like good news until you delve into the messy details. To settle the case, the authority had to pay the city's legal fees ($325,000) and pledge a bevy of improvements to its proposed operations down there (up to $1.35 million). None of which money, alas, does the authority actually possess. So what does it do? It mortgages public assets. In this case, over 15 acres in the city of Ukiah, including that town's train depot. Who does it mortgage them to? The same private company to which it has also mortgaged all its train cars and other "rolling stock" -- NWP Inc., holder of a 99-year concession to run freight on the line that it purchased for exactly nothing and, increasingly, the only real player in this game.

Does NWP believe in Santa too?

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Hank Sims

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