6/26/13

If you’ve been following the great East-West Train Dreaming that has been happening in these parts for the last year or so, you’ve no doubt been bewildered by the great variety of new or new-to-us public and private organizations that have sprung up to hasten the day when that glorious golden spike is pounded into place round about Hayfork or somewhere. You’ve got your Upstate California, your Upstate RailConnect Committee, your Land Bridge Alliance, your Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group, your this, your that, etc., etc.


Which is what and what is who?


The picture was defuzzed a little this morning, when one of those groups — the Upstate RailConnect Committee — met in Humboldt County for the first time this. The RailConnect Committe, if I have this right, is a subset of Upstate California, a heretofore obscure (at least on this side of the mountains) quasi-public economic development council serving the entirety of Northern California.


Representatives from Trinity and Tehama Counties, through which the great east-west railroad will run in the extremely unlikely event that it is built, were in attendance, alongside Rex Bohn (representing Humboldt County) and Lance Madsen and Mike Newman (representing the City of Eureka). Also on the committee were former Eureka City Manager David Tyson, representing the Land Bridge Alliance, and former Humboldt Bay Harbor District CEO David Hull, representing … himself, it seems.


There was a good deal of questioning from the public about the nature of the RailConnect Committee itself. Is it a governmental agency? Is it a nonprofit group? Does it have staff? How can one contact it? What are its obligations to public transparency, or the Brown Act, or anything? Where are its agendae and minutes posted?


The answer, from Upstate California General Manager Allison O’Sullivan, amounted to the fact that Upstate California, of which the RailConnect Committee is a part, is something like a nonprofit economic development corporation that chooses to act as a governmental agency. She and Tyson said that there was much concern, at the committee’s formation, that it act as transparently as possible, even though their attorney told them they didn’t have to. So even though meetings of the committee are not noticed on Upstate California’s own website, they will be noticed on the sites of the City of Eureka and other member groups.


There is no staff. People seeking to contact the committee for information or input were directed to contact Eureka City Councilmember Lance Madsen, the committee’s chair.


So the fact that it is a non-governmental agency accounts for the presence of the two non-government actors on its board — Tyson and Hull, or, in committee parlance, “the Daves.” Hull led the most substantive portion of the day’s proceedings: A discussion of what would happen were some rich person to come along and offer money to fund an east-west feasiblity study? (Remember: Despite the amount of energy being poured into this, locally, we’re still in the pre-feasible stage. The committee is trying to find money to fund a study to determine if a new rail line is even feasible.)


Hull laid out a couple of scenarios as regards this hypothetical private party wishing to drop a bunch of cash into east-west feasibility and asked for committee input. What if this private party just wants to fund his own study, cutting Upstate RailConnect out of the loop entirely? What if he dropped a bunch of cash into Tyson’s Land Bridge Alliance, with the proviso that the money be forwarded to Upstate RailConnect to fund the study with no strings attached? What if he dropped a bunch of cash into the Land Bridge Alliance in the same way, but with a bunch of strings attached — i.e., that some, most or all of the information in the study be kept confidential?


It was the third scenario that got board members talking the most. In general, there was a great deal of disapprobation. A representative from Trinity County made the point that if this ever actually gets going, the impacts on the public would likely be enormous, and would run the gamut — environmental, economic, infrastructural. She was not comfortable with any part of the hypothetical third scenario, except that maybe she could see market research aspects of the study kept close in such an event. Her point of view seemed to carry the day among committee members. Most of them are, in fact, elected officials.


There was, perhaps, only one other major matter of note, and that was the Humboldt Bay Harbor District’s lightly simmering feud with the committee. For one, the Harbor District — through whose territory the massive goods anticipated by the eastie-westies would, after all, run — would like a seat on the committee. The committee is disinclined to give them one.


Why? That leads to the second source of contention. The Harbor District is skeptical of the possibility of east-west rail — current CEO Jack Crider has a great deal of experience with short-line railroads, and has publicly turned up his eyebrows at the possibility of a new Eureka-Red Bluff line. The district has, in fact, commissioned its own small ($20,000) pre-feasibility study that explores the restoration of rail service to the North Coast. Harbor District Chair Mike Wilson told the committee that his agency just received a draft report from its consultants yesterday, and that he hoped that the RailConnect committee would be allowed to hear its findings at a future meeting. No date was set, but Wilson and Madsen agreed to find a date sometime in the future.


Then they adjourned to go have lunch at the Samoa Cookhouse and ride the Madaket around the bay for a while.


Jessica Hall of Humboldt Baykeeper was also in attendance. She and KHUM’s Larry Trask discussed the meeting on the station’s regular Wednesday afternoon “Coastal Currents” program. Click HERE to listen to the audio.

 

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