East-West Rail Rejected Again

April, 2017

 

Supporters of an east/west railway line have again tried to gain traction for their ideas. The project, however, would involve serious ecological and social costs. The March 16, 2017 episode of the NEC’s EcoNews Report discussed recent and prior east-west railway proposals and potential impacts. Listen to the whole show online here.

Train tracks pepper the Northern California landscape, evidence of a time when trains were required for life in isolated regions. While supporters of an east-west railway have again tried to gain traction, a grant to fund a pre-feasability study was rejected by the Trinity County Transportation Commission in early March.

Tom Wheeler, Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), spoke with Larry Glass, Executive Director of both the Northcoast Environmental Center (NEC) and Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment (SAFE), in the March 16 episode of the EcoNews Report about the east-west railway proposals that have come up over the years and the implications for the surrounding society and environment. 

Supporters want to connect Humboldt County to Tehama County, which lies about 185.5 miles southeast. First discussed a hundred years ago, the proposal for the railroad was brought back up in 2010 by Eureka businessman Rob Arkley.

The proposal stemmed from a demand for a better method of transporting goods. “What they have always stated is that there’s this pent up demand, particularly for agricultural products in the valley, to find a route to the Pacific,” Glass said. “Rather than going south to Stockton or Sacramento or Oakland or any of the ports down there, they wanted to go directly west. It’s never been clear to me why.”

The UpState RailConnect Committee was created by supporters and began meeting in 2012. The topic of having a feasibility study performed on the railroad’s possibility arose. Glass attended these meetings on behalf of the NEC and SAFE.

“In a lot of ways, people looked at it and went, ‘Oh yeah, that’s crazy. That’s never going to happen.’ But at the same time, I felt like there needed to be somebody there from the environmental side keeping an eye on these guys,” Glass said.

A pre-feasibility study was produced for the Humboldt Bay Harbor District and released in 2013. The study showed that the project would cost at least $1 billion and also noted that the slope in Trinity County posed a difficulty. “In order to traverse Trinity County, you would have to travel twice the land miles...because of the grade problems,” Glass said. 

Glass and Wheeler went on to discuss that if this rail line were feasible, it would have been constructed long ago when it was first discussed. “If there was a way to have built that rail to the east, they would have done it back then,” Glass said.

“I can’t imagine that you can get something like this done in a cost-effective manner today, just because of labor laws [and] safety rates,” Wheeler added.

The environmental impacts of the railway would be considerable. In addition to the diesel smoke, latrine waste from the train would also likely be dumped onto the sides of the railway. Wide swaths of forest would have to be cleared along the line to eliminate the possibility of trees falling on the tracks. Numerous rivers and tributaries vital to the survival of fish and ecosystems would also be compromised, many already in recovery stages and sensitive to construction-caused sediment buildup.

In 2016, the Committee submitted a transportation grant application to the Trinity County Transportation Commission. The grant was awarded, but required acceptance. Glass saw this as an opportunity to again show opposition to the railway. “Here’s our opportunity to say no loudly to this thing, one more time,” Glass said. 

“To get a county as small and desperate as Trinity County to turn down “free money” from the state seemed like a big ask. But as we went out to the community and organized...we got a lot of people’s attention,” Glass said. 

The March hearing for the grant was packed with people opposing the grant. “Nobody in Trinity County spoke in favor of accepting the grant,” Glass said. “The four [supporters] were all from Humboldt County.” 

Though it was expected to be a close decision, the grant was rejected by the Trinity County Transportation Commission. “The most important player in this does not want the train,” Wheeler observed. Opponents of the East-West rail are again victorious. For now. 

Glass and Wheeler discussed whether this would perhaps prompt other counties and cities to side with Trinity County on the matter.