UPDATE 3/9/2017: Victory! Trinity County Transportation Commission voted 4:1 against the railroad study. 50 locals spoke against the project and 4 out-of-towners spoke in favor of the study.
The Trinity Board of Supervisors, sitting in special session as the Trinity County Transportation Commission, is set to decide on whether to spend $355,000—$276,000 of which coming from you, the taxpayer—on a feasibility study for a proposed railroad connecting Eureka to the west with Gerber, CA to the east. This proposed rail line would be an ecological and fiscal disaster. Let’s stop this bad idea in its tracks. So far, the Trinity Board of Supervisors has only heard from rail fans, a loud but small group. Now it’s time for them to hear from the rest of us! Tell the Trinity Board of Supervisors to reject wasting taxpayer money on a fruitless railroad study.
An east-west railroad has already been extensively studied, starting way back in the 1909 Lentell study and ending with the 2013 study produced for the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. Rail fans insist that these previous studies are inadequate or biased and therefore we need to look at the problem again. Evidently, rail proponents will not be content until a study concludes what they want to hear.
Based on the previous railroad studies, here are four quick reasons why funding this study is a bad idea:
(1) The railroad would be an ecological disaster
Trains are often billed as a “green” form of transportation, but developing this rail line would be an ecological disaster. All feasible routes would need to run across or near important rivers, such as the Trinity, Mad, Van Duzen and others—many of which are designated as “Wild and Scenic”—and are expected to produce significant sediment and other pollution. All feasible routes would impact existing wilderness areas or would run through potential future wilderness areas.
A rail line would only be economically feasible with a massively developed Humboldt Bay. As one of the most important stops in the Pacific Flyway and a critical aquatic ecosystem home to engendered fish, such as coho salmon and eulachon, Humboldt Bay is a unique ecological treasure. The development necessary to make Humboldt Bay a major West Coast port is extreme and would spoil the bay’s natural beauty and ecological integrity.
Coal is one commodity that may be shipped to Humboldt Bay for export to China. (Indeed, coal trains are one of the presumptive types of trains used in a previous feasibility study.) Coal trains are known polluters—leaving long plumes of coast dust in their wake—they have been sued for violating the Clean Water Act violation, and are the issue of carbon emissions from the export of coal.
(2) The railroad would serve a non-existent market
In short, even if a rail line existed, a port at Humboldt Bay would not make much sense. First, the bay itself is not conducive to the large transport ships in vogue. Rail proponents highlight that Humboldt Bay is one of the few deepwater harbors along the West Coast. However, this ignores the substantial work that would need to be done to get the harbor in condition to handle large boats. The bay would need to be dredged to a deep depth and the construction of large docks and other infrastructure would be necessary. Similarly, the narrowness of the Samoa Peninsula would limit the amount of rail traffic, reducing its feasibility.
Second, other competitive disadvantages—the amount of traffic necessary to generate sufficient net revenue to pay for the line (among the largest amount of volume on the West Coast), the lack of advantage in rail distance in comparison to other ports, the connection only to the Union Pacific line and not the BNSF line—outweigh whatever advantages Humboldt Bay offers. As the most recent feasibility study concludes, “development of rail service to Humboldt County is likely to be both high cost and high risk.”
(3) The railroad would cost a fortune to build and to maintain
No matter the alignment, the rail line would cost over a billion dollars, with a cost per mile generally over five million dollars. Maintenance costs would also be huge. Given the challenging geology, the most recent feasibility study anticipates annual costs of $90,000 per mile and a cumulative sum of $18-20 million. These same high operating costs were the deathblow to the rail line that once ran along the Eel River. Why would this be any different today?
All of this is at a time when Caltrans struggles to maintain our existing roadways. Access to the coast is constantly at risk, from Last Chance Grade, which is slipping into the sea, to Highway 299, which seems to be constantly under siege from the nearby mountain. Let’s work on fixing our existing infrastructure before spending a huge amount on a risky railroad.
(4) Our geography would reduce train speeds to a crawl
It is no secret: the North Coast is a wild tangle of mountains and rivers. This unique geography makes getting to the coast difficult—as evidenced by the routine closures of our major highways and the failure of previous rail lines. (This geography also makes this place a lovely and interesting place to live, but that’s for another day.) A fundamental issue facing an east/west rail line is our geology. The steep slopes would require many miles of twisting tracks to switchback up hills. Previous feasibility studies limited the average speed that could safely be achieved at 25 mph, a snail’s pace. In fact, the pace is so slow, and the distance so long, that halfway to its final destination, there would need to be a pit stop for crews to shift. And forget about passenger rail—can you imagine how torturous that ride would be?
The past feasibility studies proved that a railway of that size and distance is audacious and unnecessary.