That was my reaction as I left the North Coast Railroad Authority board meeting in Eureka last Wednesday. The board had just voted unanimously to receive a report from three of its directors, the ad hoc Humboldt Bay Rail Corridor Committee, and directed staff to bring back a resolution supporting "a broad-based Humboldt County community coalition to advocate for public and private funds with which to restore the Humboldt Bay Rail Corridor, including the provision of trail development therein." The NCRA directors were so impressed with the extraordinary effort by the committee, local agencies and organizations, and individuals that they agreed to meet again in December in Eureka to move this plan forward.
This committee of three actually did what they set out to do: To gather all the facts in one place; to listen to the various, sometimes conflicting, voices in the community; to make findings and recommendations that show us a path forward to get what we all want without stepping on projects being advanced by others. And to do it all within a timeframe announced in advance -- by the NCRA meeting in Eureka Nov. 14.
This is the fifth column this year I am writing not on behalf of the Journal, but as an advocate for the Bay Trail, a safe, off-highway bike and pedestrian path for transportation and recreation. There have been efforts to establish a trail between Eureka and Arcata for decades. I was part of a few of those efforts in past years. In March I joined a small group to try again. We call ourselves the Bay [T]rail Advocates (www.baytrailplan.com). (Get it? We support both trails and rails.) Working with many individuals, agencies, organizations and elected officials, we brought forth a plan to ask the NCRA to study community needs related to the railroad corridor. A key vote was in late June when the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to send a letter to the NCRA board to form a committee.
That letter was received and vigorously debated when then NCRA board last met in Eureka July 11. The meeting was long -- and contentious. But the directors heard our voices, and they did what we asked then to do: They formed a committee to "engage stakeholders" and come back with a report. Since July, that committee has moved with lightning speed by any government standards.
With extraordinary help and some grant money from the Humboldt County Public Works Department, consultants were hired, reports were gathered, three well-attended public meetings were held in September and October (thanks to the Humboldt County Association of Governments and the City of Eureka). We all learned a lot about the condition of the railroad infrastructure around the North Bay (go ahead, ask me about tide gates). We learned about trail studies in the past and what it would take to build them today, and about the possibilities for the return of rail service.
So what are the findings and recommendation of this committee? In a nutshell, we can all have what we want -- trails and rail excursions, and maybe even the eventual return of rail freight service (I'm sure the East-West folks are paying attention) -- within the boundaries of realistic time frames and fiscal responsibility. We have to go forward together, finding funding, rebuilding the railroad bed, repairing culverts and crossings, increasing protection for Highway 101, building a trail, and clearing and repairing tracks for an excursion train. But we have to have priorities. (One of the NCRA directors said, "We can't all get through the door at the same time. We have to take turns.")
Here are some key recommendations from the report:
• NCRA should state its support for a broad-based community coalition to advocate for the investment of public and private funds to restore the Humboldt Bay rail corridor, in whole or in part, clearly incorporating trail development into such restoration generally consistent with NCRA trail policy;
• NCRA should prioritize rail infrastructure restoration and trail development in the Eureka-Arcata corridor to more clearly align its objectives with those of Caltrans' U.S. 101 Corridor Improvement Project. [Actually, it's HCAOG's project.]
• NCRA should also prioritize rail restoration in the Arcata to Samoa corridor in order to facilitate the restoration of passenger excursion service.
How do we find the money to repair the railroad bed, to stop it from further erosion and to actually maintain it until rail service comes back when the NCRA is broke?
By combining it with the goals of every other public agency and private organizations we've been talking to these past eight months: Bay [T]rail Advocates want the trail. Timber Heritage Association wants an excursion train. Caltrans wants, needs a safe bike and pedestrian path. Coastal Conservancy and Coastal Commission want that critical link in the California Coastal Trail. The cities of Eureka and Arcata want greater, safer connectivity and healthy recreational choices. The chambers of commerce and tourism industry should want Eureka to become a major destination point for bicycle tourism.
This is where priorities come in. The NCRA committee found that "limited exceptions to the NCRA's trail policy may be practical" to facilitate the trail and to attract those dollars we need to repair and maintain the railroad prism. One example given was the Eureka Slough Bridge. What we'd all like to do -- those who want to see both a trail and a rail excursion train -- is to cantilever the bike and pedestrian trail alongside the bridge. But since that is a very expensive project and the train isn't ready to run all the way to Eureka yet, can we use the bridge for the trail until rail service returns?
I have an idea. Let's demonstrate that we can all work together for common goals. The NCRA board is making a special effort to return to Humboldt to adopt a resolution implementing key elements of the report Dec. 12. Let's show them that this community is more united than divided. Let's all show up and tell them we support the committee and then let's get to work to make things happen.
[The NCRA Humboldt Bay Rail Corridor Committee Report and all supporting documents are on file at http://www.northcoastrailroad.org/meetings.html# under Nov. 14, 2012 Agenda.]