Price tag estimated at half a billion dollars
By Skippy Massey
HUMBOLDT COUNTY has entertained many far-reaching and costly proposals over the years ranging from a Hershey’s’ chocolate factory, a WWII aircraft carrier for Humboldt Bay tourists, a Cousteau aquarium and research center, a rare stuffed animal emporium, water export bladder bags, a LNG facility financed by Goldman Sachs, and an Olympic swimming pool complex gracing the Adorni waterfront, among others. Attorney Bill Barnum’s Tuesday evening presentation before the Eureka City Council Chambers brought us the latest flight of fancy to the fore.
MR. BARNUM is asking for a $250,000 feasibility study on the prospects of building a spanking new 130 mile long east-west corridor railroad– costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million– or perhaps much more. No one really knows how much it will cost, what the benefits would be, or who would pay for it. Hence the proposed study helping put the word ease back into feasibility.
“WE don’t know who’s going to do it, and we don’t know who’s going to pay for it, but we’d like the idea positively identified for a look,” Barnum said, joined by members of RAPIT (Rail and Port Infrastructure Taskforce), Bill Bertain and Pete Oringer.
POSSIBLY named after its founders, the aptly entitled B & O Railroad would advance the need for jobs and infrastructure by transporting goods from Humboldt Bay to Cottonwood. Shipping goods from Asia would benefit from a half day reduction time– compared to other west coast ports– by traveling to Humboldt Bay and then eastward to the connecting north and south freight and rail lines to Seattle, Long Beach, and even east to Chicago. The former north-south NWP line is defunct, vexed, hammered, and plagued by the constant repairs, deterioration, and the unstable geography of the Eel River Canyon. The new line, as proposed, would ride on top of the landscape ridges eliminating major repairs of unstable terrain. Mr. Barnum argues the cost-effective benefits of a new 130 mile rail line to the east would likely exceed the ongoing repairs and maintenance of the old 350 mile NWP line to the south. The Barnum family owns significant land and timber holdings in the county — though he denies any financial interest in real estate in the Redwood Valley watershed through which the newly proposed line would traverse.
BARNUM said the idea for an east-west line originated 140 years ago– but lost out to competing rail construction that connected Eureka south to San Francisco Bay when demand for North Coast redwood timber spiked after the 1906 earthquake and consequent reconstruction.
HANK SIMS of the Lost Coast Outpost offered us a little history and his cranky take on the subject when the idea was brought before the Fortuna City Council in August:
But the best part of all, to my mind, is the official voice the council will give to the totally insane idea of building an entirely new railroad to the region, eastward through the Trinity National Forest! Railroad redundancy!
From time to time you hear the RAPIT people whisper about this, er, ambitious, scheme. Specifics are never given because no specifics exist… The resolution passed by the council refers to “the possibility of a rail line from Eureka/Fairhaven east to the Red Bluff area utilizing the 1909 Jess Lentell route and field notes from his reconnoitering.” This “Jess Lentell,” it turns out, is JN Lentell, the early Humboldt County mapmaker whose reproductions you can still find for sale today…
At the turn of the last century he was hooked up with a bunch of local dudes going under the name of “Humboldt & Eastern RR” who wanted to beat the early Northwestern Pacific to the shores of Humboldt Bay. Their plan — the same plan Fortuna (and Eureka) is talking about tonight, I guess — was to go east to Red Bluff, and to finance construction of the railroad through the sale of publicly owned timber in the Trinity National Forest. The feds gave this plan a big thumbs-up. At the time, a shocked Sierra Club called it “by far the largest amount of timber ever offered for sale by the Forest Service.”
Mr. Sims continued his effervescence by asking where the cash is:
…The crazy train pulls into Eureka City Hall tonight, where a curious amalgam of choo-choo fans will seek some kind of boost for its new feverish dream of someone, somewhere, building a whole new railroad line from Eureka to the Central Valley, across the Trinity goddamn Alps. They’re seriously fired up about this!
Even if Six Rivers National Forest and dozens or hundreds of private landholders forked over right-of-way out of the goodness of their hearts, even if the thing were legally unchallengeable on all conceivable environmental grounds, you’d still be looking at, what — a billion dollars? Billions of dollars? Even Alaska’s famous Bridge to Nowhere was gonna cost as much as $400 million.
So let’s go ahead and provisionally say billions for a train to, uh, Eureka. Who’s forking out that kind of cash for so little these days, and where do I sign up?
Will the Eureka City Council go where Fortuna dared not tread? Stay tuned!
Eureka Councilmember Linda Atkins said she supports the idea of a study but wanted private funds to pay for the expensive endeavor outside of government monies. Councilmember Marian Brady wanted the idea of a trail following alongside the rail route as a ‘win-win’ situation for trail advocates. Councilmember Mike Newman pushed the rail momentum forward by asking to see it placed back on the agenda in January so they can vote on a resolution.
In the end, the Eureka city council was in favor of passing a resolution for the study, asking it be placed on a future agenda for further discussion.
Pete Nichols, co-founder of Humboldt Baykeeper, weighed in with his comments about the whimsical rail whopper to the Humboldt Herald yesterday:
I am curious about funding a feasibility study for something that is not at all feasible or practical? After witnessing the $200K that Dave Hull extorted from Headwaters Fund the ‘feasible’ Deep Marine Terminal, I and a majority of the community are weary of these ‘glory days’ proposals we are seeing surface in a climate where that line of thinking just does not work.
I cannot believe a ‘new’ rail line in this day and age that does not move people, and traverses some of the most unstable and rugged terrain in CA? How about we pitch in and buy you folks a topo map and a USGS Soil Survey and call it a wash?….. in the holiday spirit and all, …..and forget this silly idea even materialized. How ’bout we focus on trails, restoration, and real local jobs where folks need not be ‘greeters’. That is what this community wants.
Here’s an idea….how about the ‘rail enthusiasts’ run their train from Samoa to the Marsh where visitors can then get off the train and rent bikes. Then they ride around the Bay to F Street Dock where the Madaket picks them up and takes them across the Bay back to where they started……..jobs, trains, tourism, and the environment. Now that I would advocate for at the Headwaters Fund!
Bill Barnum, in reply, made his brief retort available for readers:
Pete, you sound like the conservatives in the 1960?s who labeled JFK a lunatic for wanting to land a man on the moon within the decade. We achieved that. So, 130 miles of new rail does not seem so far-fetched.
Anyway, we are not breaking out the bulldozers just yet. We simply want a feasibility study by one of the leading railroad engineering firms. Don’t get hurt feelings if we don’t rely on… Pete for the answers.
Other readers made their points as well:
“Why is landing on the moon always part of the conversation about railroads and Humboldt County?”
“This would be actual infrastructure that would provide actual, tangible benefits and genuine changes to the economic, social, and cultural realities of Humboldt County. So naturally it will be ignored by “serious people” who will continue to do nothing. Humboldt can benefit greatly from three things: Rail to the Central Valley, an active Port in the bay, and improved telecom infrastructure. If you develop these things, you have an actual economic base and future in the area…. Humboldt can support a small port, light manufacturing and other light industrial, and businesses that provide services using telecom infrastructure.”
“Eureka to Red Bluff? Wow. If you’ve ever taken Hwy 36 to or from Red Bluff, then you’ve got some idea what that terrain looks like. Now imagine trying to put a railroad through there. It would be quite an engineering feat, to say the least… It almost makes me wonder if the idea is to make re-opening the existing north-south rail line through the Eel River Canyon sounds a little less outlandish, at least compared to the idea of blasting a whole new line to the east.”
“The City of Eureka has decided goals for the next year in their 2011 Strategic Visioning:
the never-ending discussion over Cutten Annexation, the development of the McKay Tract, boosting revenues, booting out the homeless, “keeping families here,” developing the waterfront, updating the city’s general plan, hiring more cops ~and — I’ll be (expletive deleted)… the never-say-die Waterfront Drive Extension Project, which the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Conservancy have both long promised to torpedo. Watch for Alice and the Mad Hatter at the next meeting. Down the rabbit hole!”
“As long as Renner’s monopoly on gas supply isn’t threatened like the old north/south line did, then I imagine there will be fewer tunnel fires and rail issues.”
“Anyone know how much of the proposed area between Eureka and Red Bluff is owned by the Barnum timber family?”
And still more weighed in with their cogent thoughts… or less:
“Hiring a railroad engineering firm to do a feasibility study will be a slam-dunk. (remember when Eureka spent tens of thousands of dollars on a respected, independent economic firm that concluded Eureka was saturated in low-wage retail in 1999!). If this area’s ‘Big Barnums’ had community-interest in mind, they would finally drop their ‘free-market’ Voodoo and hire independent professionals to complete a comprehensive economic feasibility study first and determine what industries could actually come once the train is completed. You know…to make sure it’s not just another handful of good ol’ boys hoping for easy money harvesting the gravel on Great-Granddaddy’s riverbanks… Humboldt’s ‘Big Barnums’ played their local-role in the economic collapse, and they’re busy at the courthouse fighting to maintain their ‘God-granted freedom’ to make a killing on the next housing bubble! How they retain credibility is the blessing of ubiquitous media self-censorship. Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ like an inconvenient legacy.”
“So let them study it. As long as I don’t have to pay for it, it’s no skin off of my nose.”
“Restoring the rail line is not for some tourist type amusement but for commerce. If it is possible it would aid in the development of the harbor and would create many good paying jobs. One of the things that government is supposed to do is create & maintain our infrastructure. This feasibility study is the government’s responsibility. Those of you who say it can’t be done and shouldn’t be even studied sound like you are descendents of the people that made fun of the Orville & Wright brothers.”
“Obviously you need to understand international shipping. The large shipping companies (the guys with the boats) choose the ports with the best profit margins for the shippers. So any port can entice shipping lines to not only call at the port, but to invest in infrastructure at that port. As for building it, they will come…”
“We need Cape Canaveral West on the Samoa Peninsula! Think of all the jobs! I want a study NOW! Personally, I think regular blimp service would have less environmental impact, but people might think that’s crazy.”
What do you think? Is the new rail proposal an economic reality to pin Humboldt’s visionary dreams on– or is it a tunnel vision pie in the sky fiscal nightmare?
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