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Workin' on the Railroad


[photo of railroad tracks]UKIAH -- It's a beautiful, sunny Friday in Ukiah and Sen. Wesley Chesbro is in a jovial mood. He's chairing a meeting of railroad supporters and top state officials here representing Gov. Gray Davis. The meeting comes just one day after Davis announced that there was $65 million in his proposed state transportation plan for the troubled Northwestern Pacific Railroad line.

"We now have the very real possibility of having an open and operating railroad," Chesbro told the group.

Later he cautioned, "There are no guarantees." The plan must by approved by the Legislature. And there's still the large question of funds for ongoing maintenance once the line is open. But for railroad supporters, the governor's news last week was cause for celebration.

The state-owned line from the Bay Area to Eureka has been closed since 1998 when landslides and slipouts in the Eel River Canyon made the tracks impassable. Railways Inc., the private company that operates and maintains the line, has been literally stopped in its tracks from making repairs due to lack of funds. Several lumber-laden rail cars remain trapped in the canyon to this day.

As the meeting progressed, representatives of the Department of Fish and Game, Caltrans, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District and businesses all chimed in with their own good wishes and congratulations.

There was only one tense period. During the open discussion, two men from Laytonville complained about the railroad's high cost and their local school's need for funds. And representatives of two environmental organizations warned of potential damage to the Eel River ecology that reopening and operating the railroad might bring.

The public comments didn't last long, about 20 minutes. But the issues raised will surface again.

A Troubled Past

In its 85 years of operation the line has been closed numerous times, most notably following the floods of 1955 and 1964 and the Island Mountain Tunnel fire in 1997.

"It was closed 177 days -- until June 1965 -- following that '64 flood," said former North Coast Railroad Authority board member, Ruth Rockefeller of Willits.

But the railroad wasn't just closed by nature in 1998. Because maintenance and repairs had been so minimal for most of the 1990s, the line was shut down by federal inspectors for failing to meet safety requirements. Following the El Niño storms in February, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved $8.3 million for storm damage repair but then refused to release the money because of poor financial record keeping in the past.

"We bash FEMA for not releasing the funds for so long, but in all honesty, the (former operator's) books were a mess," said John Darling, president of Railways Inc., the current operator of the line.

"All that was resolved about a year ago," said Max Bridges, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency in charge of the NWP line.

The line has remained closed for two years for safety reasons, lack of funds to adequately repair the track and a new, more pressing issue -- federal environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). In order to reopen, the line has to be brought up to Federal Railroad Authority Class 1 standards.

"That's the major issue. It's more than storm repair," Bridges said.

FEMA, the lead agency, completed an environmental assessment in January, but many who have reviewed it are saying the document is inadequate.

"I call it sparse," said Tim McKay, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata. "There's not a lot in it."

"Yes, that's probably correct," NCRA chief Bridges admitted. "There are some real issues that need to be looked at. It needs some strengthening."

But he and other rail boosters are hoping to address those issues by revising the environmental assessment (EA) and avoiding a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS).

The simpler "environmental assessment" requires a finding of no significant impact, called a "fonsi." If such a finding cannot be made, the longer environmental review process must be followed under NEPA guidelines and that could take could take 18 months or more.

[aerial photo of slide area] Aerial photo of slide area along theEel River Canyon.
(Photo courtesy of North Coast Railroad Authority)

Of economic importance

Chesbro and other state leaders listened Friday to business and government leaders regarding the railroad's importance to the economy of the North Coast. And they heard from several environmental groups about issues they say are not adequately addressed in FEMA's environmental assessment.

"The need for a working railroad to Humboldt County is greater than ever," said Greg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, representing the North Coast Leadership Roundtable.

Dennis Wood, director of lumber production for Pacific Lumber Co., said that the rail is an important part of the transportation infrastructure on the North Coast. He noted that some large trucks can't even navigate sections of Highway 101 at the present time.

"Shipping things by truck just isn't efficient enough," said David Hull, executive director of the harbor district. Besides, the newly deepened harbor and an operational rail line are mutually dependent.

"Each of us needs the other to survive," he said.

Hull pointed to a March 22 Wall Street Journal article reporting that 46 percent more tonnage went through the port of Humboldt Bay in 1999 over the previous year. He said that other deep water ports in California are reaching capacity and if the county could get a reliable rail line, the customers are waiting.

"It's not a case of `build it and they will come,' because we've got these groups that are ready to go right now," Hull said.

Chesbro agreed, saying that one way he helped convinced Gov. Davis of the importance of the railroad was by showing that "the port at Humboldt Bay will become crucial to the state economy."

Other industries will benefit as well. Pacific Bell recently began laying fiber-optic cable along the rail corridor which will significantly increase the volume, speed and reliability of telecommunications in Humboldt County. Company representatives say they need stable, maintained tracks so that they can access lines to service them.

[photo of Jose Medina, WesleyChesbro and Robert Jehn] Among the representatives attending the
April 7 Northwestern Pacific Railroad meeting
in Ukiah were, left to right, CalTrans Director
Jose Medina, Sen. Wesley Chesbro and North
Coast Railroad Authority Chair Robert Jehn.

FEMA assessment questioned

The environmental assessment by FEMA uncovered some issues of concern such as the lack of a policy for dealing with Native American artifacts and sacred sites. It also acknowledged that as repairs progress along the unstable Eel River Canyon walls, it is "likely to adversely affect Chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead trout."

Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxins (CATs), said her group has many unanswered questions regarding FEMA's document.

"We're really concerned because there is no plan or idea or action being taken to find out about the toxic chemicals in the soil along the railroad," she said, specifically wood treatments used to preserve railroad ties and the herbicides sprayed on the track to keep it clear of vegetation.

Clary maintains that these chemicals, which might leech into the soil, have made the railroad "a 300-mile-long brownfield." And she called FEMA's document "pathetic."

Kevin Bundy of the Environmental Information Protection Center in Garberville agreed with Clary, saying there was "a lot of interest in the environmental community in having some sort of real assessment of the situation."

In addition to toxins, the noise and disturbance caused by the railroad posed a threat to fish.

"We have enough problems with the fisheries in the Eel River at this point," because of sedimentation and rising water temperatures, Bundy said.

Neither Bundy nor Clary said they are contemplating a lawsuit at this time. They said they are concentrating efforts on having an EIS prepared, something rail officials hoped to avoid but admit may be necessary.

There are others -- including Chesbro -- who say that the environmental impacts of not repairing the railroad are also significant and need to be considered.

Wendell Jones, a retired employee of the Department of Fish and Game, told the group that the greatest danger to the Eel River is an abandoned rail line which would dump more sediment into the river and destroy fish habitat. Current and future landslides can only be addressed if there is funding for ongoing maintenance, he added.

Chesbro told Bundy and Cleary that while he shared their concerns, he did not "see how not having a revenue-producing operation helps that situation." He also mentioned that having the line operational would decrease traffic on Highway 101 by an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 trucks per year.


Into the future

Ronald Poulsen of Railways Inc. reminded the state officials that while proper drainage and maintenance can help stabilize the line, "stability in Northern California is a relative term" due to seismic activity as well as weather.

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad is "probably one of the most expensive railroad lines to maintain in the country," he said.

Chesbro said that the goal of the current project is to have the railroad "supported by revenue and not be an ongoing subsidized project."

Others said that that goal may not be unattainable.

The North Coast Leadership Roundtable, a group of business and government leaders that meets weekly in Eureka, said in a letter to the gathering that they "believe that maintaining the rail infrastructure may require ongoing financial support from the public sector."

Robert Jehn, chairman of NCRA, said current estimate for repair and rebuilding the line is $112 million, $95 million short of what is already in hand. If the $65 million state infusion comes through, that is still $30 million short of a permanent solution.

Bridges assured Chesbro the $65 million should be "more than enough" to bring the track up to the condition it was in before the slides.

Chesbro said he understands the $65 million is short of what is needed for long-term stabilization and continuous maintenance. He said additional funding will be needed, including revenue from freight, additional federal funds and "local transportation dollars."

How would an already cash-hungry railroad fend off a serious legal battle if it cannot satisfactorily address concerns of environmentalists?

Chesbro said that right now, he is trying not to think in those terms.

"I'd rather approach things from a positive standpoint right now," he said. "I'm more than willing to actively incorporate their concerns."

Editor's note: On Wednesday, April 12, (past press deadline), the NCRA board was to meet in Eureka. The board was set to discuss how to get the south end of the line opened quickly and how to proceed on the line north of Willits. It may be possible to open the line in sections that are more easily repaired -- for instance, the line from Scotia to Humboldt Bay -- before work is done on the more costly and environmentally sensitive section of the Eel River Canyon, Max Bridges told the Journal Tuesday.

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