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Private group may bankroll east-west rail feasibility study

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The Upstate RailConnect Committee got thrown quite a curveball at its recent meeting in Weaverville. The committee, a working group of representatives from Humboldt, Tehama and Trinity counties and other interested parties, has been working for a couple of years now on figuring how to cobble together some $300,000 for a massive study to determine the feasibility of building a railroad connecting Humboldt — and specifically its port — to the Red Bluff area and, by extension, the rest of the country.

The group has garnered a litany of supportive votes from local governments throughout the three counties, most recently grabbing the nod of the Humboldt County Association of Governments. The trouble is the governments have to date been pretty unwilling to put up any public funds for the project. The HCOAG board, for example, only approved its recent letter of support for the committee after inserting language that its support was contingent on no local association funds being used to pick up the tab for the feasibility study.

So, you can probably imagine the surprise in the Weaverville conference room of the Trinity County Public Utilities District on the morning of April 2 when a man by the name of Robert Martin addressed the committee and, reportedly, asked them to scrap their push for a feasibility study. According to several people in attendance, Martin said he represents a group — the Humboldt Tehama Railroad Development Corporation — that intends to fund and launch a study to assess the feasibility of laying a roughly 125-mile long rail line over the mountains between Red Bluff and Humboldt Bay. A public feasibility study, Martin said, might complicate or even harm that private effort.

Reached by phone at his Red Bluff office, Martin declined to discuss his railroad efforts. "We don't want to go into the newspaper with that at this time," he said. "There's already too much information out about it."

According to the Nevada Secretary of State's Office, the Humboldt Tehama Railroad Development Corporation incorporated as a domestic corporation on Oct. 23, 2013. The filing lists Laughlin Associates, Inc. — a business advocacy firm in Nevada — as its registered agent, and lists Martin as the corporation's president and director. Kenneth Davlin, a well-known Eureka civil engineer whose resume includes stints as the city engineer for Blue Lake, Trinidad, Fortuna, Rio Dell and Fortuna — is listed as the group's treasurer.

The Journal attempted to catch up with Davlin this week to talk about potential developments in the east-west rail line and received a brief email response noting that he was in Boston and wouldn't return until the week of April 28. "I recommend you call the group in the Red Bluff area," Davlin wrote. "I hear they are seeking financing."

When the Journal attempted to follow up with Martin on April 22, he said Davlin was working on writing up a statement to provide the paper. But, contacted by email, Davlin said Martin was mistaken.

"I am in the middle of all day and evening meetings all week in Boston so will not have time to deal with this nonissue until after I return," he wrote, adding that neither he nor the engineering firm he is president of, Oscar Larson and Associates, has a written agreement to do any work on any rail project. Davlin said he's offered, on behalf of his firm, to provide engineering services to Martin and the Humboldt Tehama Railroad Corporation, "but we expect to wait until completion of any financing for further discussions."

Davlin did not respond by deadline to a follow-up e-mail asking if he serves as the railroad corporation's treasurer.

Former Eureka City Manager David Tyson, who represents Humboldt County on the RailConnect committee, said Martin's remarks at the April 2 meeting were unexpected. Martin, Tyson said, asked to give the committee a full presentation that day but hadn't contacted the committee prior to the meeting and consequently wasn't on the agenda. While the committee is not technically subject to California's open meeting laws, Tyson said it is trying to operate in the spirit of the law with complete public transparency, posting its meeting agendas and minutes on the city of Eureka's website. So Tyson said the committee told Martin he could address the group during its public comment period, but would have to wait until its May 7 meeting to give a full presentation so it could be agendized properly. "What we from the Upstate RailConnect Committee have told Mr. Martin is that we have a public process, and that's what we believe in and stand behind," Tyson said.

The public-private discussion seems poised to become a theme at the May 7 meeting, as Martin's request that the committee back away from its public feasibility study could potentially conflict with the committee's general direction. The committee is trying to secure grants to pay for the feasibility study, with Trinity County currently in the process of applying for a Caltrans grant on behalf of the committee.

"We feel very comfortable with the process that we've developed," Tyson said. "We feel that the research that's done on this initially should be done as a public feasibility study so everybody has the same information. With that said, we also support Bob. If Bob and his investment group want to go and do their own thing, we applaud that and support that, but we don't feel what we're doing needs to stop or slow down unless he gives us a very good reason for that."

Just what might constitute a "very good reason?" Tyson said there's a federal process an entity can go through to establish itself as having the sole right to a specific route, kind of like an exclusive right to negotiate. If, say, Martin were to show up on May 7 with that federal process underway and funding in hand for a private feasibility study, then Tyson said the committee may decide to step back and hold off on spending public grant money as Martin's group moves forward.

"At that point, we may become cheerleaders and say, 'Great, we have someone ... interested in carrying the sword,'" Tyson said. "We as public agencies have waited decades for someone to do this type of work. We were frustrated nothing was occurring ... The sole purpose of this work is really to generate private interests in the project."

Martin is also no stranger to the process or the greater effort. When the Land Bridge Alliance — a local group started by the late Eureka City Councilman Lance Madsen to raise education about the push for an east-to-west rail line into Humboldt County — was reaching out to form relationships with potential partners throughout Northern California, Martin played a big role on the Tehama side. He set up meetings with rotary clubs, farm bureaus, farmers and others, Tyson said, adding that Martin allowed him and Madsen to essentially use his Red Bluff office as a central hub for the week's worth of outreach efforts.

But as far as Martin's present plans for a privately funded feasibility study, Tyson said he's in the dark: "I don't have any specifics of what his business profile looks like."

Proponents of the east-west rail project — an idea that's bounced around Humboldt since the late 1800s — believe a rail line connecting the port with the rest of the nation's freight infrastructure would be a major economic boon, creating loads of living wage jobs and all kinds of industry opportunities in the county. But the obstacles to creating such a rail line seem formidable. Last year, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District released a report it commissioned for $20,000 taking a cursory look at the prospect of creating such a rail route. The report estimated the project would cost between $1 billion and $1.2 billion to complete and might not generate enough business to sustain it, concluding it "is likely to be both high cost and high risk."

Is Martin worried a more thorough public feasibility study may just bring the project's obstacles into sharper focus and spook potential investors? Is he concerned it could generate a wave of interest from competing private investment groups looking to get in on the project? Does Martin's group really have the $300,000 or so needed to complete a thorough study? The answers to these questions are unclear, but may begin to come into focus May 7.

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Thadeus Greenson

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