On the cover North Coast Journal

June 30, 2005


[t] rail: Which way around the bay? [person on bike looking at rusted railroad tracks and bay view]

On the cover: A cyclist contemplates the future of the railroad track alongside Hwy. 101 between Eureka and Arcata.
Photo by Kyana Taillon
[t] rail: Which way around the bay?


On a recent bike ride from Arcata to Eureka, the cars and trucks speeding by remind me why I usually avoid riding on Highway 101: It's a nerve-jangling ordeal. I don't dare look up to catch a glimpse of the bay or the hills for fear that I'll drift off the shoulder and into traffic.

But after crossing Jacoby Creek, I pull over, lean my bike against a billboard, walk toward the bay and stand on the old railroad tracks.

It's quieter here, and from this vantage I can appreciate the subtle curves and arcs of the sedge-covered shoreline, the way the water reflects the sky. A row of old pilings makes me think about what used to be shipped in and out of here.

Then two different visions for the future of this deteriorating railroad around Humboldt Bay come to mind.

One dream is an excursion train, the Shoreline Special. It would embark from a depot in Old Town and circle the northern half of Humboldt Bay all the way to Samoa. Special packaged trips would include lunch at the Samoa Cookhouse and a meandering return trip across the bay on the Madaket water taxi.

The other idea is to turn this publicly owned right-of-way into a trail where people could bicycle or walk, ride skateboards, horses or wheelchairs, travel between communities or just have fun. Such "rails-to-trails" projects have been created all around the country, including in McKinleyville, where the old Hammond railroad right-of-way has been developed into a popular trail.

Right now, both ideas are in preliminary stages, and the people backing them are careful to say that their proposals might work together, that both a trail and an excursion railroad could be created here.

But the realities -- a narrow right-of-way and an extremely tight public purse -- mean that the two ideas will probably end up competing for space and funding if and when they move toward implementation. And the process will be colored by one of the most difficult and oddly polarizing issues on the North Coast: The future of the North Coast Railroad, which starts 316 miles south near Petaluma and ends at Humboldt Bay.

[Bicyclist riding on Highway 101, railroad tracks in foreground]

The little engine

The group proposing the Shoreline Special is the non-profit Timber Heritage Association, formerly the Northern Counties Logging Interpretive Association. Since the late 1970s, the group has cooperated with the staff of Fort Humboldt State Historic Park in Eureka to establish a logging museum and set up an outdoor complex of vintage train cars and logging machinery.

Among its 200-plus members are 30 to 40 working volunteers who repair and maintain the group's machines and operate them at events like the summertime "steam-ups" held once a month at Fort Humboldt.

While the group's recent steam-up was cancelled due to heavy rains, the events are usually quite popular. They feature one of two small steam-powered logging locomotives, The Falk or Bear River No. 1, pulling an open car full of kids and adults up and down a short track. The heritage association members even take their show on the road, loading an engine, a rail car and portable tracks onto a custom-made trailer, then hauling the gear as far as Sacramento to set up exhibition rides.

With their remarkable physical and mechanical competence, and their history of entertaining and educating, the Timber Heritage Association members have inspired respect for their Shoreline Special project. Hundreds of supporters have attended fundraising events like a dinner in February where they paid $40 each to dine on "classic railroad dining car" cuisine.

The excursion railroad idea also resonates with the owners of motels and other tourism-related businesses. They see a train ride as an attraction that would draw more visitors, especially overnight customers. A feasibility study completed in 2003 by excursion-railroad consultants Stone Consulting and Design (paid for by the city of Eureka with a federal grant) verified the existence of a potential market.

In August 2002, the consultants surveyed 337 people in Old Town, downtown Arcata and other places in Humboldt County (240 of those surveyed were visiting from 100 miles away or more).

Over 90 percent of the respondents were interested in taking a train ride around the bay, with most favoring a one- to two-hour trip for $9 to $12 in open-air or open-window coaches pulled by a steam locomotive. Sixty percent of the tourists surveyed said they'd probably stay an extra day in Humboldt County in order to ride the train.

[train engine]The consultants used this data as well as ridership figures from the Skunk Train, Napa Valley Wine Train and other excursion railroads to estimate that 35,000 to 50,000 people per year would ride the Shoreline Special around Humboldt Bay.

But the consultants also made clear just how expensive it would be to set up the railroad operation. After reviewing an engineering study and making their own analysis of the railroad's condition, the consultants estimated the cost of repairing the tracks, building a depot and outfitting an engine and train cars at between $5 million and $8 million.

Just for a steam locomotive and a couple of passenger cars, the group is looking at about $625,000. While it has purchased -- for $33,000 -- an 80-year-old steam locomotive with historic ties to the North Coast, the old No. 37 is still in Delaware awaiting an estimated $450,000 in repairs. [in photo above]

To operate a passenger railroad, the heritage group would have to bulk up to become a professionally staffed organization. The group could use volunteers as car hosts and off-season shop helpers, but it would need to hire a full-time manager, as well as a train crew and shop employees. Liability insurance alone would exceed $40,000 a year.

And even it they sell the projected 35,000 to 50,000 tickets a year, the Shoreline Special would still require a "locally funded operating subsidy" of as much as $100,000 annually, according to Stone Consulting.

In four years of fundraising, the THA has raised about $100,000.

So, is the Shoreline Special truly The Little Engine That Could? Or is it another grand idea for a tourism attraction on Humboldt Bay that won't make the grade financially?

Timber Heritage Association Treasurer Mike Kellogg points out that the track rehabilitation costs would not necessarily have to be borne by the excursion train operation. "The consultant didn't really know how to deal with the track," said Kellogg. "We probably should have, in hindsight, said the track part should be left out [of the feasability study]. Because to really do this the correct way, we need the North Coast Railroad Authority to reopen the track."

But the NCRA, which hasn't moved a freight train across these tracks in eight years, is running on fumes and waiting for tens of millions of dollars in long-delayed federal and state funds. The NCRA board has also decided, for economic reasons, to focus on repairing the line from the south to the north. So there's no telling when or if the NCRA will be able to invest millions of dollars in repairing the tracks around Humboldt Bay.

[Marcus Brown wearing engineer's cap and looking out window of train engine]When pressed to explain how the project will make it economically, association President Marcus Brown [photo at right] expressed a hope that the community would rally to support the Shoreline Special because of its economic-development benefits. "The tourists are already here, but they're driving by us," he said. "We need the big hook, the big thing to get people to come here as a destination. Then we can package all the other nice things we have and give people several days worth of things to do."

Then he described what he calls the group's "fallback position." It is an approach originally suggested by one of the consultants who told Brown it was left out of the feasibility study because it would mean bypassing the city of Eureka, which paid for the study.

To avoid the most expensive track repair job -- replacing a failing bridge between Eureka and Arcata -- the heritage group could seek the North Coast Railroad Authority's permission to upgrade the tracks from Arcata to Samoa. "Basically we could get a bunch of volunteers and fix that track," said Brown. "It's mainly replacing rotten railroad ties at $65 apiece ... [and restoring] places where the gravel is washed out."

Then the group would deploy its recently acquired 1950s-era diesel locomotive -- not the first choice of the people who were surveyed, but it's here and ready to roll -- and start periodic excursions between the college town at the north end of the bay and the company town on the peninsula.

"We could have a little weekend train ride staffed by volunteers and let the community know, `Hey, we're alive and happening,'" said Brown, adding that he has read articles about excursion trains that started in this manner.

Pedestrians, equestrians and bicyclists

My highway anxiety notwithstanding, there are hardier cyclists who ride regularly on Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka, and feel safe doing so, according to Rick Knapp, vice president of the Humboldt Bay Bicycle Commuters Association. But Knapp agrees that it's no place for a casual rider. [photo at left]

[Rick Knapp wearing cycling clothing, helmet and standing near bike]"I may feel comfortable riding on that highway, and a lot of other bicycle commuters do feel comfortable [but] there's a lot of traffic, it's noisy and not a great environment for riding," said Knapp.

"It's not a good place for kids to be riding at all," continued Knapp, who is also former district director for CalTrans. "You have large intersections with right turn lanes, and [when crossing these] you have to know where to position yourself on the roadway by judging the speed of vehicles [coming up] behind you. ... You have to really know how to ride a bicycle defensively to be safe along there."

Other routes around Humboldt Bay are even more treacherous for bicyclists, not to mention pedestrians. From Arcata to Manila, most of Highway 255 has only a tiny shoulder; the Humboldt Bay Area Bike Map rates the route as a "challenge [for] skilled riders."

And according to Knapp, the only way to ride safely on Old Arcata Road is to place oneself in the path of 45-mph traffic. "You can't ride along the edge stripe and be safe," said Knapp. "You need to be out in the roadway to be visible to motorists and not end up being part of a sandwich." (A widening project to make Old Arcata Road safer for bicyclists and pedestrians has been delayed for several years, according to Knapp.)

For these and other reasons, Knapp is one of many advocates of turning the Humboldt Bay railroad right-of-way into a non-motorized trail. "It would be a terrific thing for commuters and for recreation, and it would be a draw for the area," he said.

"It would be really nice to have a multi-use trail in that corridor," echoed Spencer Clifton, director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments. "It would get quite a bit of usage by equestrians, pedestrians and bicycles. You'd be along the bay with natural resource access. It would be a very attractive facility."

A multi-use trail between Arcata and Eureka has been identified as a goal in HCAOG's regional transportation plans, and Spencer's board -- made up of one county supervisor and one elected official from each of the seven incorporated cities -- recently directed him to explore the concept with the railroad authority.

At a railroad authority board meeting earlier this year, Clifton learned that the NCRA board had no interest in letting any part of its railroad be made into a trail. The board, a joint powers authority of Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties, wants to keep its options open for the Humboldt Bay section. "The policy of the board is not to have rails to trails, but rather to have trails with rails where this is feasible," NCRA Chair and County Supervisor John Woolley told the Journal.

Regarding the Shoreline Special, Woolley said the board is "open to considering any business plan from any operator to use all or a portion of the railroad."

Sharing the right-of-way

Rails with trails projects have indeed proven to be feasible in many locations, with barriers or median strips constructed to allow trains and people to share the same right of way. But rarely, if ever, has such a dual-use transportation system been developed on a right-of-way as narrow as the one around Humboldt Bay, according to a report from the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

Nonetheless, HCAOG will work with the trail specialists at Redwood Community Action Agency's Natural Resources division to study the possibility of a rails-with-trails setup on the right-of-way around Humboldt Bay. They plan to walk the railroad corridor in July, taking measurements and surveying conditions. "Since it's something the board directed me to pursue, we intend to continue exploring ways in which we can surmount the challenge" of sharing the right-of-way, said Clifton.

[highway and railroad bridges parallel to each other, bay in background]But it doesn't take a field trip to know that building a trail alongside the railroad will be far more expensive and difficult than dedicating the whole right-of-way to a trail. For one thing, crossing creeks and sloughs would be a costly challenge. "We'd have to figure out how to cantilever off the side of existing bridges," said Clifton.

Knapp predicts that a rail-with-trail could only be accomplished by building up a new road bed alongside the existing track surface. "You'd have to build it up to protect it from the tides," he said. "You'd have to fill wetlands, and getting approvals to do that is as difficult as finding operating subsidies for a railroad."

Additionally, a tall fence would probably be needed to separate people from trains -- and that would impact the views of passing motorists, perhaps even the riders on the Shoreline Special.

But it's important to note that pulling up the tracks and converting the railroad to a trail would also cost a lot of money. No agency has made an estimate of how much, nor is anyone likely to do so while the railroad authority board says it will not consider a rail-to-trail transition.

Once a key element in the region's timber economy, the railroad has been sidelined by shifting economics and storm damage inflicted on its tracks in the remote and rugged mainstem of the Eel River. Many people on the North Coast view the railroad's revival as distinctly unlikely, if not impossible.

On the other side are many citizens and leaders who view restoration of freight rail service as a key to pumping up the regional economy. Many environmentalists support restoring freight service because trains are more fuel efficient than trucks, and because they hope a freight railroad could someday add passenger rail service. (For more on the NCRA's prospects, read the Journal's May 29, 2003 cover story.)

The bottom line for the Humboldt Bay railroad right-of-way: the NCRA board has said "maybe" to the Shoreline Special, "maybe" to a rails-with-trails concept, and "no" to a rail-trail that would interfere with its future ability to drive trains.

For some trail advocates who doubt the viability of the railroad, the NCRA board's posture is infuriating. "The railroad is just a boondoggle, a waste of money," said Will Spurling, a trail supporter and owner of Henderson Center Bicycles in Eureka. "If it comes back it will only be with a lot of tax money supporting it."

Spurling is similarly dubious about the Shoreline Special's prospects. "I don't think enough people will buy tickets to cover the costs of running it," he said.

Larry Buwalda, another bike-trail supporter, is more supportive of the excursion railroad promoters. "Seeing that the [Timber Heritage Association] has put so much energy into it, I'm in favor of the tourism railroad if it is something that can really go [financially]," said Buwalda, who owns Adventure's Edge bicycle and outdoor store in Arcata.

"But if that doesn't fly, I'd want to go forward with a rails to trails program," said Buwalda.

Jim Hight is a freelance writer in Arcata. or call (707) 822-2628.



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