How much is a railroad worth to you?

near the Vista del MarAs I write these words I am in the County Supervisors’ chambers, trying to stay awake while the board members of the North Coast Railroad authority, or six of them, spend half an hour consulting with their Ukiah attorney on the legal definition of the word  “train”.  The issue at hand is the Timber Heritage Society’s plans to offer speeder rides on the NCRA’s track and everyone’s desire to avoid liability in case of an accident.

The NCRA is no more disfunctional than any other governmental body- have you ever sat through a Planning Commission meeting? The NCRA folks come to this meeting in Eureka with a major victory under their belt: on July 13, rail service was restored from Schellviile to Windsor. The next phase will restore service- freight service- all the way to Willits. Willits!  How galling that Willits will become a veritable hub of rail transport while in Eureka the train is becoming a distant memory.  The folks in the Bay Area will be able to take a pleasant jaunt to Willits, transfer to the Skunk for a wondrous scenic ride and arrive in Fort Bragg relaxed and ready to spend money. I can see those dollars flying away, dollars that we need right here in Humboldt.

When I was a kid we often took the train to San Rafael. The train went through 52 tunnels and as a scenic ride it’s up there with the Glacier Express in Switzerland. I am an unabashed advocate of passenger rail, one of the tribe Hank Sims has labeled “morons”.  I believe Hank’s motives are pure. Unlike some of the rails-to trails advocates we’ve been hearing from lately, he’s not motivated by personal gain; he’s just horrified at the $500M price tag of restoration through the Eel River Canyon. That figure is on the high end, the sum frequently cited by the “no train-it’s hopeless” crowd.

Let’s accept the $500M figure. If Humboldt County were to pay the entire cost, each man, woman and child would  have to kick in $3759  for the  joy of riding the rails. If the costs were spread across the five counties that would see the immediate benefit (Del Norte, pop. 20,000, Humboldt 130,000, Mendocino 90,000, Marine 261,000 and Sonoma 493,000) the per capita cost goes down to  about $500. Our tax system doesn’t work that way and the benefits would clearly extend to those outside the North Coast, so if we assume all California will benefit from freight and passenger service which costs a fraction of trucking costs and pollutes less (LOTS less) the cost would be $13.33 per capita. Of course there will be ongoing maintenance, dwarfed by the ongoing costs of our heavily subsidized  road system, which no one seems to complain about. The issue isn’t money. We’ve spent more money on dumber projects.

I am a skeptic regarding the east-west route recently proposed for study. Fine, it should be studied, but that project would be starting from scratch, and has little if any tourist potential.  On the other hand, quick transit to the I-5 corridor is very desirable. That’s why our friends up in Coos Bay have reactivated their train route to Eugene.  Anyone who can get cargo to Coos Bay will be two hours from I-5 and its many possibilities and distribution centers. When I visit my friends in Eugene, I fall asleep to the distant sounds of a train. Ah, music….

So how much would a railroad mean to your business? To your life? Let’s hear YOUR thoughts!  After all, you’ll be paying for it.