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.

12 thoughts on “How much is a railroad worth to you?

  1. As someone who has grown up around railroads, and ridden passenger trains throughout the World, I am shocked at how quickly we are in the U.S. to abandon railroads rather than rebuilding them. Could you imagine highway 101 being abandoned, on account of washouts? NO

    Yet, that is exactly what happened with the Eureka line, and others… throughout North America. And as a result, the economy of the North Coast is in shambles.

    Even at $500 million, I would urge the state of California to restore service to the entire line. Not only because of the freight potential, but more importantly, the passenger and tourism potential.

    Just imagine being able to one day, jumping off the ferry in Vallejo and boarding a comfortable First Class train to Eureka? That would attract visitors to the state by the thousands!

    • I can’t understand it either. We are missing a major bet by not having passenger rail service through the scenic Eel River Canyon. The new proposal for east-west service doesn’t even HAVE a passenger component. Great to hear from you!

      • Agreed….. while the east/west proposal might look more viable on paper, running the existing North/South line makes far more sense. And if done properly, with at least one FIRST CLASS tourist train a day in each direction would be great for tourism. Further, it would get the trash trucks off the highway, and onto the rail. Just makes sense, even at $500 million. But realistically, I suspect it could be rebuilt for far less than that. Especially if non-union contractors were allowed to bid on the project.

        • True re: the unions but they have been the most reliable supporters of rail and I don’t think the price differential would be that great. Did you go to the NCRA meeting yesterday? I couldn’t make it.

  2. maybe if the country took a little more inward looking stance as opposed to the outward, foreign relations stance we have we could fund the repair the Eel canyon and construction of an east-west line. just saying.

    The investment is to develop one of the last potential deep-water port sites on west coast…you know infrastructure investment, which this country appears to have forgotten. Additionally, it is to access the resources we have that the south needs. As much as we hate to admit it our economy is driven by resource/land management markets whether it be organic dairies or industrial timber.

    There is no reason we can’t have a local tourist train using the rails with trails approach other than dogmatic zealots who are all or nothing. A creative plan would bring together restoration, levee repair, and ag preservation grants to tie together a rail-with-trails system.

    • I agree with you re: our infrastructure, which is in a shameful state of disrepair. One of these days we’ll realize how much we need rail service around here. I’m all for the tourist train but i terms of economic impact it pales in comparison with what passenger service from the Bay Area could do . Check out my latest post re: the speeder rides, and thanks for visiting!.

  3. Why is it that if you dare question the feasibility of the railroad, you are immediately labeled a “no growther?”

    • Yes, it does get tiresome. That’s why I’d like to see a definitive study of costs, possible cargoes etc. My latest post, just this morning, seems to have triggered several responses to the PREVIOUS post. Welcome aboard!

  4. “Unlike some of the rails-to trails advocates we’ve been hearing from lately, he’s not motivated by personal gain”

    What personal gain could there be from converting rails to trails? Other than the paving contractor, I don’t see what you mean. Not trying to be argumentative – I just find this comment to be unclear.

    • It came out a few months ago that a very prominent RTT advocate is a wealthy landowner from Phillipsville or down that way who owns property on both sides of the tracks going through the Eel River Canyon. This has nothing to do with the local RTT movement for RTT around Humboldt Bay. It seems like the big issue here is space. No room for a highway, PLUS a track PLUS a trail, forcing some choices. Thanks for visiting, Matt.

  5. Agreed it’s an uphill climb (no pun intended) but a few months ago I wouldn’t have believed anyone in their right mind would seriously propose an east-west route. Your point about the timing (fiscal situation) is definitely well-taken.

  6. Well, but no one is talking about passenger rail to Willits anytime soon, and certainly no one is proposing passenger rail to Humboldt County for $500 million.

    The NCRA itself now says that Humboldt County is off the table for foreseeable future, but even when they were throwing numbers around, back in the day, no one was talking about restoring passenger service. They were talking about going for the absolute lowest Federal Railroad Administration designation — to move freight only, and to move it very slowly at that.

    You say that $500 million for restoral to Humboldt County is “on the high end.” I’m not sure if I believe that. In any case, though, restoring the rails to passenger-grade standards costs way, way more than restoring them for freight. It’s been a long, long time since anyone threw around numbers for bringing back passenger service.

    Here’s my point: No one knows how much it would cost to bring the train back. It would be a lot. A WHOLE lot. And no one seems to have any idea who would possibly pay for it.

    You suggest spreading the costs out over the state of California, but would there be any political will to do such a thing when schools are starving for funds and state parks are being closed left and right? Especially when it would so clearly be a straight-up subsidy aimed at a tiny corner of the state? Especially when the potential return on that investment is sketchy in the extreme? When a significant portion of the richer and more politically powerful counties to our south would oppose it? When it would face serious legal and political challenge from environmental groups?

    It seems to me that the smart thing to do is utilize this public asset more cheaply and more sensibly.

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