TABLE OF CONTENTS
By Scott Greacen,
FOER North Coast Director
The North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) is poised at key decision points for the future of the largely defunct rail line. At stake are commuter and freight rail service in Sonoma and Marin counties, massive additional impacts on the recovering Eel River, and the possible development of trails in Humboldt County. (For the NCRA back story and many important documents, see the FOER website at www.eelriver.org/ncra/)
Now, in the spring of 2011, the NCRA and the private company that is the contracted operator of the south end of the line’Äîthe North Western Pacific Company, or NWPco’Äîhave taken extraordinary measures, spending more than $70 million just for a small section of the railroad to prepare to restart freight trains on the line from Windsor, in Sonoma County, south to the terminus in Marin. After first agreeing with the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) commuter rail agency that it would not seek to restart freight operations without an operating agreement with SMART, the NCRA and NWP went directly to the Federal Railroad Authority when SMART would not agree to the deal that NWP demanded. Meanwhile, after agreeing to a series of specific steps in a consent decree that settled a lawsuit filed by the city of Novato challenging the NCRA's plans to run freight trains through the city, the NCRA is now trying to strong-arm Novato into dropping most of its agreements including their demand that the railroad install welded rails that would reduce train noise through the city.
A number of long-standing issues continue to plague the railroad revival effort, raising serious concerns about what the NWP and NCRA actually plan to do. Those concerns have been amplified by recent disclosures and developments, which underscore the likelihood that the decisions the NCRA takes in the near future will resonate for decades on the North Coast.
Friends of the Eel has been calling attention to one particular aspect of the railroad's plans to reopen in the Eel canyon, that being a proposed open-pit mine for hard rock and other valuable minerals at Island Mountain, at a place that's economically accessible only by the NCRA line. The business plans made public by the NWP and NCRA to date all point to the development of the Island Mountain mine as a central piece in any possibility of profitability for the railroad. So too does the part-ownership of the NWP by Evergreen, a company seeking to develop the Island Mountain mine.
Another aspect to the railroad's real designs getting too little attention is its plan to haul gravel. A proposal by the NCRA and Koch brothers to mine gravel from property owned by the latter, right above the drinking water for the town of Willits, was narrowly rejected. This is important in part because a central element in the NCRA's successful application for the CTC funding it used to rebuild the south-end line was the claim that freight operations would help lower stresses on the road system, as well as emission of global warming greenhouse gasses, by shifting heavy freight over to more efficient, lower-impact rails. However, gravel does not, and likely never will, move long distances by truck: it's far too heavy and cheap for it to be profitable to do so. Thus, to the extent the NCRA and NWP do plan to haul gravel, they will not be shifting impacts from trucking, they will be creating entirely new impacts.
At the heart of the strange relationship between NWPco and NCRA is the contract the two entities signed in 2006. Thanks to an analysis by NCRA board member Bernie Meyers, a Marin county attorney, published as an op-ed in various North Coast newspapers, the public is beginning to hear more about this unusual and extremely unfair document. Negotiated in secret between the NWP's attorney, former North Coast congressman Doug Bosco, and his former chief of staff, Mitch Stogner, who is now the Executive Director of the NCRA, the lease contract is, in Director Meyers' view, very one-sided, with all the advantages seemingly accruing to the NWP. Meyers calls attention to the misleading presentation of the term of the lease document: "A press release simply called it 'a five-year contract' to operate trains from Eureka to Novato. The release failed to state that while the initial term was five years, NWP has a unilateral option to extend the lease for up to 99 years without meaningful NCRA oversight." In other words, what was presented to the public as a five-year contract was really a deal for the foreseeable future.
Director Meyers also notes that "other egregious provisions include the paucity of payments by NWP and the need for NCRA to obtain many hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to rehabilitate the line. Incredibly, there has been no analysis as to whether the lease is fiscally prudent." He concludes that "(i)f the lease is left as is, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars will be expended apparently for private gain and limited public benefit. Fiscal prudence and transparency have been swept aside in an effort to bring freight rail to the four-county area."
As yet another example of the lack of transparency generally expected of agencies operating with public funding, the NCRA and NWP have filed a joint application with the FRA for a loan that would keep the perpetually strapped NCRA running. As part of this application, NWP filed an amended business plan’Äîwhich NCRA's Executive Director Stogner refused to allow NCRA board members to see.
This raises the very serious question of why the NWP would want to conceal its new business plan from the NCRA board and the public. If the new plan is consistent with the Environmental Impact Report, as well as the representations made to SMART, Novato, and the state agencies concerned with the Eel River canyon cleanup consent decree, there would seem to be no reason to keep it secret. After all, there is no prospect of competition for rail freight on the NCRA line’Äîthe NWP has an exclusive contract. If, on the other hand, the business plan filed with the FRA is both accurate (which it had better be) and says something different from what the NCRA has said to all those interested parties, they need to know about it before the NCRA pushes the "go" button on resuming freight operations.
As we go to press we are hearing from the NCRA that they want to rail-bank the section of the railroad through the Eel River Canyon. This does not mean that it will become a rail-to-trail project, although there are a lot of people who would like to this occur. However, local ranchers are up in arms about potential trespassers, fire danger, little water in the river during summer months, as well as challenges to hikers by major pot farmers in the area during the growing season. The issues are real and of great concern to local residents and need to be addressed. These issues are likely to take time to resolve, so watch our website www.eelriver.org for news and updates and your local newspapers and listen to our streaming live radio show KMUD.com the 3rd Tuesday of each month from 7 to 8 pm.