Friends of the Eel River has been confronting the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) for many years over the agency’s plans to rebuild the failed rail line1 from Humboldt Bay to the San Francisco Bay area through the spectacular but unstable and vulnerable Eel River Canyon2.
At the heart of this dispute is the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that the NCRA withdrew after we challenged the document in state court3. In 2017, the California Supreme Court ruled against the NCRA, holding that the agency does in fact have to follow the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The NCRA is now asking the US Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.
Also in 2017, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) finally moved to hold the NCRA accountable. The NCRA conceded in a June CTC hearing that it “was having difficulty maintaining and expanding rail service, has never been self-sufficient, and was routinely unable to pay its obligations.”
The CTC told the NCRA to come back with a business plan to show how it could be run without continuing losses, and/or a plan to shut down if it could not support itself as a railroad. In its Annual Report for 2017, the CTC recommended that the Legislature convene a committee of stakeholders to recommend how to turn the NCRA and its rail line into more functional and productive state assets.
When the NCRA came back before the CTC for its January 2018 meeting, however, they brought neither a business plan nor a shutdown plan. Instead, Mendocino County Supervisor and NCRA board member John McCowen presented the CTC with a “draft Strategic Plan” that read like an incompetent sales agent’s prospectus to low-information investors. A grifter’s pitch to suckers, in other words.
The core of the NCRA’s grand plan? Sell the state something the people of California already own! — the Eel River Canyon stretch of the rail line. This is an especially audacious move because the Eel River Canyon segment of the rail right of way cannot possibly be fairly described as an asset worth millions to the NCRA. Rather, it is an enormous liability. This is true in part because of the substantial environmental and cleanup work – probably $50 million or more at current costs – that must be done on the section. But it is also true because Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics are about to march back into state court, armed with that California Supreme Court decision requiring CEQA compliance, and explain to the court the NCRA’s long refusal to do so. That isn’t likely to turn out well for the agency. Getting rid of the stretch of rail at issue is about the only way to escape legal liability for its evasions at this point.
Though the NCRA would like to frame this whole gambit as a new openness to railbanking (which it has actually had a policy against doing), the fact that it proposes to hang on to the northern end of the line, from roughly the confluence of the mainstem Eel with the South Fork Eel River up and around Humboldt Bay, makes the NCRA’s actual position on railbanking much clearer. If the decision to seek railbanking for the Eel River Canyon is truly driven by a lack of demand for commercial freight service and huge demand for recreational use of the public rail right of way, then Humboldt Bay is clearly where railbanking should start.
As NCRA board chair Estelle Fennell conceded in a meeting with FOER in January, the NCRA has no prospects for any commercially viable freight operations in the Humboldt Bay area either. Nor has it ever shown any evidence that the north end could be run separately from the rest of the line.
Meanwhile, public demand has made the Humboldt Bay trail the region’s top transportation priority. But because the NCRA refused to railbank, and demanded that trails be developed alongside its railbed, the new trail between Arcata and Eureka is going to cost roughly four times as much as it would have — $24 million instead of $6 million — if the NCRA had simply allowed the trail to be built on the rail footprint. So why not railbank around Humboldt Bay? Because the NCRA thinks it can continue to get trail proponents to pay to rebuild its rail line.
But the CTC and CalTrans are not suckers. Both agencies’ staffs politely trashed the NCRA “Strategic Plan” as a gimmick unsupported by virtually any of the evidence the CTC had requested. CTC Executive Director Susan Bransen’s report noted that, as recently as January 2018, the NCRA was only stopped from leasing state property for non-transportation uses by the timely intervention of CalTrans lawyers, who told the agency to do so would trigger a requirement to repay the state the full value of the property.
Former NCRA board members Tom MacDonald and Bernard Meyers also addressed the Commission, outlining very serious questions surrounding the NCRA’s financial management and governance. David Keller and Scott Greacen each spoke for Friends of the Eel River, pushing for the focused audit and drastic actions we believe are necessary to insure that: 1. the rail line is put to beneficial public use as soon as possible from Humboldt Bay to Willits; 2. those festering environmental liabilities are finally addressed; and 3. the interests who have driven the NCRA off the tracks not be further rewarded for their backroom deals and fraudulent schemes.
In short, it’s time for the NCRA to transfer its easement rights from Willits north to a more responsible entity and stop blocking clean-up and rails to trails efforts. Time will soon tell whether the NCRA is finally listening. If it doesn’t, the courts and/or the legislature will soon force it to.
Southern Pacific had sought to abandon, then sold the line, because it was the most expensive stretch of rail to maintain in the corporation’s vast system. Once the bonanza of old-growth redwood logging ended, it began to cost more to keep the tracks open – let alone clean up a century of messes and impacts – than the railroad could hope to recover in hauling fees. (more history on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad)
We have been especially concerned by the state agency’s failure to address a range of serious environmental liabilities along the line, liabilities the state acquired when it bought the rail line to prevent it being abandoned and removed. These include known, characterized toxic sites; more broadly distributed but uncharacterized toxic sites; failure of the railroad itself, its associated infrastructure, and various cars and railroad debris in the river; geotechnical problems like landslides and fallen tunnels;
When the NCRA took $60 million in public funds to rebuild the rail line from the California Transportation Commission (CTC), the funding came with a condition: follow CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, by analyzing and disclosing the potential impacts of rebuilding the line. The NCRA took another $3 million from the CTC to pay for the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) required by CEQA. But when Friends of the Eel River (and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, in their own case) moved to challenge the EIR for not looking at the Eel River Canyon, the NCRA tossed the EIR aside. The agency told the courts that under federal law it had no obligation whatsoever to follow state environmental law. In 2017, the California Supreme Court rejected that theory, ruling that the NCRA does have to follow CEQA.