What’s Really Holding up Railbanking on the North Coast?

August, 2012
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It’s easy to explain why the North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) has rejected the Bay [T]rail campaign’s proposal to consider railbanking the defunct rail line between Eureka and Arcata: John Williams told them to. Williams is the head of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company (NWPCo). The NCRA is a public agency being run by, and for the benefit of, William’s NWPCo, a privately held but politically connected company that could care less what Humboldt County citizens want.

What takes a bit of work to explain is why the NCRA, a public agency, would ignore a request from a unanimous Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, and why the agency’s leadership is so hostile to citizens and environmentalists who ask tough questions about what the NCRA and NWPCo are doing with the public’s resources and money.

The NCRA’s reaction to the proposal to consider railbanking illuminates the legal fight FOER is in with the agency. At its root, the suit is about our concerns for the Eel River Canyon and its fisheries, but the NCRA keeps trying (and failing) to use it to reject the idea that it has to comply with environmental laws. It is impossible, however, to square the NCRA’s contention that it has no plans to reopen the line through the Eel River Canyon with William’s claim that even to consider railbanking for a few miles of track will harm his interests. 

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The old Northwestern Pacific line—what’s now the NCRA line— was always an economic and ecological failure. It worked, more or less, for most of a century because there was a lot of valuable old growth timber ready to ship south to support the line’s very high maintenance costs, but also because it was built when ecological costs could be, and were, routinely ignored. After the old growth logging bonanza, the deep-pocketed Union Pacific gave up on the line, and a small operator went broke trying to run it.

To keep the line and its right of way from being lost, a group of North Coast politicos got the California State Assembly to create the NCRA to take over the line. At the heart of the NCRA’s disfunction is its capture by the network of power and influence centered around former Congressman and Santa Rosa kingmaker Doug Bosco. Bosco and his business partner, railroad consultant John Williams, cut a deal in secret with Bosco’s longtime aide, Mitch Stogner, who is now the executive director of the NCRA. In 2007, the NCRA granted Bosco and William’s Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWPCo) a lease that the agency tells the press and public is good for five years. But the actual terms include a set of 99-year options which NWPCo can exercise for the same price they paid for the overall lease: nothing.

The result of this giveaway is that the NWPCo actually controls the NCRA, but without any of the obligations or liabilities that usually go with ownership. NWPCo has even been providing the cash that NCRA uses to keep its doors open. Because the NCRA is set up to carry all the potential liability for the line, including responsibility for environmental compliance, the fact that the NCRA is always broke is, from the point of view of the NWPCo, an advantage.

The flip side of the NCRA’s deference to NWPCo is the agency’s dismissive rejection of any attempts to hold it accountable to the public interest. Despite the efforts of NCRA board member Bernie Meyer, a Marin County attorney, and others to persuade the NCRA board to address the utterly one-sided lease agreement, it remains the basis of the NCRA-NWPCo relationship today. Resolving the twin problems of the Eel River Canyon and Humboldt Bay may require reforming the agency itself. It will certainly require reshaping the relationship between the NCRA and the NWPCo.

In our lawsuit, the NCRA has denied they have plans to rebuild the Eel River Canyon portion of the old line. (Otherwise, they’d be admitting that they’ve failed to comply with CEQA by addressing the cumulative impacts of that part of the larger project.) Williams has stated that NWPCo has no plans for the Humboldt Bay section. He has also claimed that railbanking that section would harm his interests. These statements could be true—but they can’t all be true at the same time.

Rumors have long circulated that if the NCRA can find a way to avoid CEQA review, and the requirements to mitigate environmental harm that go with it, they’ll rebuild the line through the canyon on the cheap, start hauling gravel and rock, and punch the line on up to Humboldt Bay. Realistic or not, if that is the plan that Williams, Bosco, and the NCRA leadership is banking on, it would explain much that seems otherwise inexplicable. 

The whole affair reminds me of one of the great scenes from the movie Chinatown. Jack Nicholson, as Jake, is asking the man at the heart of the scheme to steal water from Owens Valley to fuel growth in LA a question we might ask Bosco and Williams: “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” To which old man Cross replies, “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”

Scott Greacen is Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River.



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