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State-Run Train Nears End of Line

The budget crisis makes reviving a costly Northern California freight hauler unlikely.

May 25, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

DOS RIOS, Calif. — Horses graze on the high grass next to idle maintenance equipment. Madrones and oak saplings sprout between railroad ties. An abandoned freight car disappears into the black grit riverbank.

Nature is rapidly reclaiming the savage Eel River Canyon from the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. Money approved two years ago by Gov. Gray Davis in a last-ditch bid to revive the freight hauler has been frozen by California's budget crisis.

There's little chance the funds will be restored. After 11 costly years of infrequent service interrupted by massive mudslides, slapdash maintenance and chronic mismanagement, the state's experiment as a railroad baron may be reaching the end of the line.

Critics, including North Coast environmental organizations, say that is a good thing.

"Ideally," said Cynthia Elkins, spokeswoman for the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center, "we should have cut our losses a long time ago and discontinued this economic and ecological disaster, lifting the burden from the shoulders of California taxpayers."

Supporters of the railroad insist that the 300-mile line connecting the Bay Area to the Humboldt coast is a vital freight transportation link in the economically depressed region.

If the Northwestern Pacific is finally derailed by budget constraints, they say, taxpayers might have to pay even more -- potentially hundreds of millions of dollars -- to clean up the mess left behind.

The railroad cannot simply be abandoned or the state would face "huge environmental and economic liability," said state Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), who represents the area.

Doug Christy, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public body created by the Legislature to run the railroad, said the authority hopes to use federal disaster funds originally designated for the Eel River Canyon to salvage the southern half of the railroad between Willits and Napa.

But, Christy said, state budget cutbacks have scrapped ambitious plans to rebuild the treacherous 110-mile section of track north of Willits where it passes through the Eel River Canyon.

"It's all about money," he said, "and we don't have it."

For state transportation officials, many of whom have consistently opposed the state's costly and controversial experiment as a freight railroad operator, the budget setback is another chapter in what they view as an ongoing saga of wasted public funds and ill-considered policy.

"I was never satisfied in my mind that this railroad was essential. For the state, it's been a bottomless pit," said Peter Hathaway, a former deputy director of the California Transportation Commission and author of a 1997 report critical of state participation in the railroad.

Over the years, the North Coast Railroad Authority has been the subject of an extraordinary number of critical financial audits, negative environmental assessments and poor safety reports by state and federal authorities.

One state Department of Transportation audit classified the public body as high-risk. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials at one point refused to release disaster relief funds until the railroad authority could prove that the money would be used to repair the track and not for salaries, contractors or other expenses.

But due largely to lobbying by North Coast civic and business leaders, who see the railroad as a key to their economic future, the state has never been able to uncouple from its commitment.

"Rail is one of only three basic connections we have to the rest of California," said Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser. "Highway 101 is a very fragile two-lane link frequently closed for weeks at a time. Highway 299 going east to Redding goes over four substantial ridges often blocked by landslides and snow. For freight, the railroad is our only realistic transportation corridor."

Hauser, a member of the state Assembly from 1982 to 1996, is one of the coauthors of the 1992 bill that created the North Coast Railroad Authority. He later served as executive director of the body.

In addition to the profound sense of isolation felt here in the California north, there is also a powerful romantic attachment to the railroad dating to the days when the line hauled massive old-growth redwoods from the Humboldt and Mendocino County forests to the Bay Area.

Ruth Rockefeller, 85, is a former Willits schoolteacher who for years was the only woman to serve on the North Coast Railroad Authority board. She led the successful 1982 fight to stop Southern Pacific from abandoning the short-line Northwestern Pacific. (The line later was sold and closed anyway.)

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