Talk of railbanking draws 50 people
All it takes to get 50 people at a Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting is sending a letter to the North Coast Railroad Authority about rail and trail issues.
At least that’s all it took to pack the supervisors chamber at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Tuesday. A total of 43 people addressed the board about a proposal to ask the North Coast Railroad Authority — a group formed by the state Legislature in 1989 to protect rail infrastructure — to form a committee to examine the possibility of creating a trail around Humboldt Bay to replace some of the railroad tracks.
County Public Works Director Tom Mattson said the railroad is an under-performing asset in the county, and that an NCRA-formed committee could vet the multiple railroad proposals that are in the works. “With nothing happening, it’s melting away,” Mattson said about the rail line.
Second District Supervisor Clif Clendenen, who serves as a director on the North Coast Railroad Authority, brought the committee idea before the board on behalf of a citizen group interested in the project. The group — called the Bay T(rail) Plan advocates — is suggesting the NCRA form a committee to look at “railbanking” the railroad around northern Humboldt Bay.
Congress created the term “railbanking” in 1983 and it allows for unused rails to be converted into trails — at least until the time when the railroad is needed again. Supporters have said the act of railbanking preserves the railroad’s right-ofway, allowing the trail to be converted back to a railroad if needed.
The citizen group ultimately wants the rail — which is owned by NCRA — to be converted into a paved, multi-modal path. The group is also advocating the rail line from Arcata to Samoa/Fairhaven be restored to support a tourist train.
A majority of the people who spoke during public comment were in favor of the Bay T(rail) Plan or the idea of at least forming a committee to look at railbanking.
Cutten resident Larry Strattner said it’s past time to form a committee to look at creating a trail around Humboldt Bay.
“I could’ve built a railroad to Mars in the amount of time this has been discussed,” Strattner said.
Cheryl Willis, Caltrans deputy district director of planning and local assistance, said Caltrans is interested in all modes of transportation and that it’s supportive of the supervisors asking NCRA to create a special committee.
Numerous people voiced concerns about railbanking. Speakers raised concerns about who would even be able to pay for the trail if the idea was accepted. Concerns about easements and potential lawsuits were also raised by the public.
Eureka attorney Bill Barnum said the whole idea of railbanking is meant to kill railroads in the county.
“This is a target shot at rail around Humboldt Bay,” Barnum said. “It’s 100 percent political.” The supervisors ultimately voted 4-0, with 1st District Supervisor Jimmy Smith absent, to send a letter to NCRA requesting it form a committee to look into railbanking. However, that was after the supervisors altered the proposed letter to state that supporting the committee’s creation doesn’t preclude the board from supporting other railway projects.
Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg and 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass voiced concerns about supporting the formation of a committee before hearing presentations from other groups, such as the group interested in seeing an East-West Railroad built.
Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said just because the board supports the idea of forming a committee, doesn’t mean it’s taking sides on the railbanking issue. He said it’s up to the NCRA to decide if it wants to form the committee and ultimately up to the committee to investigate whether railbanking is a good idea.
“We’re sending a letter to ask someone to form a committee to study something,” Lovelace said. “That’s not killing the rail or building a trail.”
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