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Come to Jesus 

The board of directorsof the North Coast Railroad Authority held its monthly meeting in Eureka last Wednesday. Many insightful things were said during the public comment period of that meeting. For me, the most insightful comment of all belonged to local realtor and staunch railroad supporter Marc Matteoli.

“We’ve had some very serious setbacks in terms of weather, which I hope we can change,” he said.

Too true. And that, in a nutshell, serves as the most succinct possible statement of where the North Coast’s defunct public railroad stands right now. Besieged from every possible direction — from the south and from the north, from the left and the right, from the halls of power in Sacramento and from the very ground beneath our feet — the railroad bureaucracy knuckles down and swipes at the sky.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the North Coast Railroad Authority. Up here in Humboldt, the ranks of the trail-boosters have swollen and grown rambunctious, and they’re agitating for the authority to consider other options for its publicly owned right of way. Down in Marin County, the rebellion against the authority is growing ugly. The equation is shifting, and not too slowly, either. Here’s just a few of the bad things that have happened to the railroad in the last couple of weeks.

l Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 861, a bill that would have provided the NCRA with another $5.5 million in funds, most of it pegged for environmental remediation. The state departments of Transportation and Finance voiced their opposition to releasing even this piddling amount to the NCRA, as the the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ League; despite a concerted letter-writing effort from railroad backers, Schwarzenegger stiffed the railroad.

l The City of Novato filed a great big lawsuit against the NCRA, accusing the authority of shirking its environmental duties and illegally hiding its operations from the public view. The suit seeks to stop all work being done on the southern end of the line until the authority completes a study that will detail the environmental effects of reopening the entire line, all the way to Humboldt Bay. On Monday, a Marin County judge denied the city’s request for an immediate stop-work order, but the suit itself is still alive and will be back in court on Dec. 11

l Green Wheels — a group of young, fresh-faced, active Humboldt County residents — is intensifying its campaign to pressure the NCRA to consider “rail-banking” its unused track around Humboldt Bay, so that a Eureka-Arcata trail might be easily and cheaply built. The group showed up in force at Wednesday’s meeting, and it extracted a promise from NCRA board chair Allen Hemphill that trails would be on the agenda next time the authority came to town.

l KHUM radio deejay Cliff Berkowitz launched a new regular segment called “Happy Trails.” Airing every Tuesday morning, it seeks to keep trail-building at the front of the public conscience and to grill public officials about what they’ve been doing to help the trail.

l A group of more than 40 medical professionals have formed an ad hoc group to advocate for trails on Humboldt Bay ASAP. On Tuesday, the group held a press conference on the Eureka Boardwalk to endorse Patrick Higgins of McKinleyville in next month’s Humboldt Bay District election. Higgins is aiming to unseat present Fifth District Commissioner Charles Ollivier, who sits on the board of the NCRA and is a strong port/rail booster.

l At the NCRA meeting, Bill Kier, Higgins’ campaign manager, and Dr. Lawrence Wieland, the leader of that group of medical professionals, together forced Ollivier to admit that his projections for the return of train traffic to Humboldt Bay — in three years time, at the cost of $100 million — were based on “wishful thinking.” At the same meeting, Hemphill said the true return date of rail service to Humboldt Bay was either way, way down the road, or possibly never.

l The local Democratic Party apparatus has become deeply divided on the railroad issue following the Humboldt County Central Democratic Committee endorsed Higgins rather than Ollivier. Democrats of the Dan Hauser/Wes Chesbro generation are still deeply attached to the railroad, probably because they don’t want to admit that they made a big boo-boo when they got the state to purchase the thing back in the early ’90s. From what we gather, the Hauser/Chesbro Dinocrats were rather bruised about the Higgins endorsement, but the Central Committee held its ground.

Taken together, these things spell a bad couple of weeks for the railroad that hasn’t run any trains in 10 years. And all these things are on top of the railroad’s ongoing unsolved issues. Namely: How many millions will it take to open the line to Willits, and where will that money come from? How many hundreds of millions will it take to open the line from Willits to Humboldt Bay, and where will that money come from? Once trains do arrive at Humboldt Bay, what will they ship? And the millions and millions of dollars required to keep up the treacherous Eel River Canyon section of line — where will they come from?

One gets the feeling that these questions are starting to wear a bit on Supervisor John Woolley, the local Democrat serving as the Hauser/Chesbro generation’s ambassador to railroad land. At Wednesday’s meeting, he said that it would be a shame to toss in the towel now, after so many state and federal dollars had been poured into the thing. Let’s just do an environmental impact report for the north end of the line, he said, and one more feasibility study. Perhaps it will give us a different answer.

Of course, he was speaking before the governor nixed SB 861, depriving the authority of the funds to perform such a study. And so on it goes.

Is this the beginningof the end of the newspaper war? Last week there was a top-secret meeting inside the Eureka Reporter, the upstart daily financed by the Arkley family (local kazillionaires). The word from several different sources inside the paper was that the Reporter was being forced to tighten its belt, to cut back staff by about 25 percent and possibly to cut back to a five-day-per-week publishing schedule.

Apparently pressure to cut back originated from within Security National, the umbrella group that contains most of the Arkleys’ business interests. According to one source, the company had been propping up the paper to the tune of $5 million per year, and had decided that the loss was no longer sustainable.

Reached late last week, Reporter Publisher Judi Pollace wouldn’t confirm any specifics, other than to say that the paper was, in fact, looking to its bottom line. “Just like everyone else — hey, it’s fourth quarter,” she said — the traditional time to take stock of revenues and expenses. But Pollace did say that the paper was looking to revamp its Internet activities, and planned to debut a new web site and an “E-edition” of the paper in the coming months.

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Hank Sims

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