Thursday, March 05, 2020

Excursion Train or Bust? "You Eder Fer it or Agin it! It is not that easy.

My wife Robin and I attended the latest Humboldt Harbor Working Group and the Timber Heritage Association (THA) special luncheon presentation concerning an excursion train around the bay. The meeting was led by Randy Gustafson (of Stone Consulting) who recently completed Bay Rail "Feasibility Study Update and Assessment Report." I heard the report was paid for by the Humboldt Lodging AssociationThis report was to address program and funding opportunities to enhance rail use on Humboldt Bay. Topics were to include speeder rides and rallies, pedal-powered rail cycles, and excursion trains. About 70 or so people were present, as well as the Executive Director and three Humboldt Bay Harbor Commissioners. All seemed excited to hear this subject matter.

Mr. Gustafson outlined the physical attributes of the existing line and complimented the Timber Heritage Association (THA) for perseverance of the assets around the bay. THA President Pete Johnston and his 400 volunteers have logged over 10,000 volunteer hours and are passionate for Timber History and especially the historical train element. The THA has been on the forefront of creating a “Rail with Trail” program in Humboldt that has been successful. Gustafson was clear to explain that our local track around the bay would only qualify for Federal Rail Administration (FRA) Class 1 transportation  which would restrict travel speeds to 10-15 MPH taking into consideration of our gauge of ties and condition of the rail line. Gustafson was good at showing other excursion train models and how they have used other abandoned rail lines that have rail with trail and no fences barricading each other. He also pointed out that there was a 20% boost in tourism when you add the element of Train with Boat like the Madaket

So everyone seems to like the excursion train concept and very little opposing voices seemed to be involved.

What is holding up this type of project?

Mr. Gustafson was just at this meeting to point out the viability. He did not address some of the blockades. Here are a few:

Legislation. Senate Bill 1029 (McGuire)-This bill creating the “Great Redwood Trail” requires the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) to undertake an assessment of the North Coast Rail Authority assets and liabilities and to submit a plan to the state legislature to dissolve the (NCRA).

Funding Source- There will be no funding or grants available until the process above is complete. Period.

New Trail Agency- There will be a creation of a successor trail agency with a mandate to facilitate the creation of interconnected, multi-use recreational trails along the NCRA right of way in Humboldt County. During workshops and Rail Authority meetings there has never been a topic brought forward on any agenda concerning an excursion train.

Proposal would be unprecedented- Even if a nonprofit business would like to obtain a lease or license for an excursion train use along the NCRA Corridor, on a railroad track way transitioning to state ownership the jurisdiction over an “active” rail line is in the legal hands of the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) and the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

Decisions have to wait for use of track- So basically discussion on the use of this right of way around the bay has been ongoing between the CalSTA-SB 1029 Project Manager, California Transportation Commission (CTC), Senator McGuire staff and NCRA legal counsel and all agree that until the successor agency is named, no new plains for rail use will be fruitful.

Nuts and Bolts- Mr. Gustafson was showing in his presentation how to build up levee damaged rail around the bay by using Riprap as an easy fix. He admits that process would have to be approved by the California Coastal Commission. Could be years for that process. 

If anyone is going to lead this idea of an excursion train, first do a reality check. I talked to my fellow Harbor Commissioner Larry Doss and he wants to co-organize a workshop and invite as many participating agencies in the process to see if an excursion train is even viable. I agreed.

Stay tuned or comment. 


uri driscoll said...

Where does the public have the opportunity to make comments and proposals during the transition period?

Bushytails said...

I would love to see an excursion train around the bay. It could be tied in with both the Madaket and the Cookhouse and other local businesses as well, for tourists who want the complete experience. Start at the junkie, I mean, boardwalk (this is something we'll have to fix if we ever hope to have tourism of any kind), see everything from land on the train, eat lunch at the Cookhouse, go back around the bay, get dessert at Living the Dream, see everything from water on the Madaket,...

I agree the tracks would need major work to allow travel over 15mph or so... There's a lot of settling, rotten ties, etc. However, most of it is in good enough condition for a slow excursion train, with the exception of some spots that need significant repairs, like the failed culvert off the anti-safety corridor.

Seems like, as always, politics and politicians are the biggest barrier to getting anything done.

Ron Fritzsche said...

Since McGuire's presentation almost a year ago, there have been no announced workshops or opportunities for public input on the "Great Redwood Trail". McGuire had promised these but nothing yet. Excursion train proposal has been on the table for well over a decade. The study undertaken by the City of Eureka in 2003 showed an excursion train was viable. Such a train has been mentioned at multiple NCRA meetings, in the public media etc. for years. I am disappointed in the seeming backroom negotiations and planning. Where is HCAOG in the process?

uri driscoll said...

You are right Ron. Mr McGuire used the word transparency no less than 13 times during that presentation. But not once since. At that meeting he recommended anyone with a proposal to present it to NCRA. Shortly after I presented a full business plan and proposal for a recreational rail bike operation. The NCRA Board had already instructed staff and a subcommittee to develop a contract for Board approval. Richard you were a part of that.
Now more than a year after that NCRA directive and after the NCRA attorney and Rail Runners had drafted a contract to near completion, all of a sudden without any Board involvement NCRA staff tells me they won't do it. Some behind the scenes activity obviously. We will do fine don't worry, it is just too bad that a few people lurking in the shadows seem intent on taking away a good opportunity for this community.
The point being if the people making the decisions can't even give a small self funded trailside business support and its takes them well over a year of leading us on just to come up with some non sensical reasoning, how the heck are they going to get a 320 mile trail with all the easement issues even started. Maybe, just maybe we are all getting played.
One thing that is more and more clear with every federal court case (on the rail to trail issues) is that trails stand a lot better chance if there is a rail to go with it.
The idea that it is cheaper to build a trail on top of a rail does not take into account the enormous costs of having to buy up easements even if you have willing sellers. A lot has changed since SB 1029 was hatched. You don't just take "rail banking " to the bank anymore.

samoasoftball said...

Uri: Maybe during the proposed workshop. This presentation by Mr. Gustafson did not address all of the hoops to be considered.

uri driscoll said...

Lets be fair to Mr Gustafson. Nobody knows how to address the hoops. Not even You who was the NCRA Chairman. Not even McGuires staff, not the NCRA Lawyer etc. As evident with my experience after providing everything asked of me. All the hoops kept changing.
If one of the stated goals of 1029 is providing jobs and business opportunities along with recreational opportunities is actually real then why can't they figure out a way to support a simple little rail bike experience that was self funded by the way.
Maybe the NCRA is as crooked as McGuire keeps saying. I really don't know. But we do know that the main priority has been to get Bosco his payday which looks like was accomplished.
With no local representation during this process (correct me if I am wrong) we have reason to doubt the sincerity of a mega million $ trail. What we are likely to get is a golly gee wiz there isn't any money after all and those pesky ranchers don't want to have people camping on their land and dogs chasing their cows, easements are going to cost millions and we have a big Perz to pay off, and homeless, and Corona virus, and and and....
I expect the workshop to be mostly about throwing acronyms like CTC, STB, Cal TA around like they are the problem when the real problem comes down to the public still remains in the dark sipping on kool aid while deals are being made by people out of this county that have no investment in this county. Correct me if I am wrong. Please. I want to be wrong about this.