A controversial, long-term proposal to ship coal by freight rail to the North Coast is not yet dead.
The federal body that oversees the nation’s railroad rights-of-way said this week it will consider a proposal from a mysterious Wyoming company to rebuild old rail lines and ship coal from Humboldt Bay to the United States. ‘Asia.
The coal export proposal is widely seen as unrealistic, in the face of fierce opposition from local and state lawmakers, the narrow margins of a declining coal industry and up to $2 billion needed to restore abandoned sections of track in the counties of Mendocino and Humboldt, according to the previous report. estimates.
But the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s decision could complicate another North Coast endeavor: the Great Redwood Trail project, a 320-mile bicycle and pedestrian path along old railroad tracks stretching from Eureka to the Bay of San Francisco.
The trail project, championed by State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg and numerous other elected officials, conservationists and economic development officials, made significant progress in March with the creation of an agency to to lead the effort.
The coal haul proposal surfaced last August, when a new Wyoming-based entity, the North Coast Railroad Company, filed documents with the federal railroad commission suggesting it could raise funds to restore abandoned railway segments.
The Great Redwood Trail Agency sought to nip this proposal in the bud, asking the railway board to disregard it.
But in a May 17 ruling, the Surface Transportation Board said it would consider the coal entity’s proposal. The board will also consider a proposal from the company behind the Skunk Train, a Mendocino County tourist attraction, to rehabilitate a section of the railroad.
In its ruling, the railroad board cited a “strong congressional intent to preserve railroad service to the extent possible.”
In the coming weeks, the two companies will have to make proposals indicating that they have the financing necessary to restore the tracks. They will also have to indicate that they can earn a return of 7.5% on their possible business plans, according to McGuire.
Rail lines from Willits in Mendocino County to Humboldt Bay have not carried rail freight since at least 1998, when rain-triggered landslides buried tunnels and destroyed portions of track, including the along environmentally sensitive stretches of the Eel River. Further south, freight operations resumed between Napa and Windsor only in 2011 after a state agency spent $68 million to repair 62 miles of track.
McGuire called the railroad commission’s decision this week a “worst-case scenario” for supporters of Great Redwood Trail that opens up the possibility that shadowy fossil fuel interests could derail the project.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview with The Press Democrat, because “the stakes are too high.”
The Surface Transportation Board leans heavily on preserving freight rail corridors, even though thousands of miles of railroad tracks have been converted to recreational trails across the country. Four of the five board members were appointed by the pro-coal Trump administration.
Little is known about the company behind the coal transportation proposal, other than that it was pushed to the Eureka area by a consultant named Justin Wight.
Wyoming is known for its lax business filing requirements and is often used to register hidden ownership companies. Documents obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah indicated that there was at least some initial interest from Utah state officials and Crow Tribe leaders, including the Montana reservation. is home to major coal deposits of the Powder River Basin. In those filings, a Utah official said Wight was seeking a $1 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But after news of the coal proposal broke, organizations and some officials who had appeared to offer at least initial support distanced themselves, including the Port Authority of Utah.
Representatives Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael and Mike Thompson, D-San Helena, who represent the North Coast and North Bay in Congress, are working to block any federal funding for such a project, McGuire said. In Sacramento, McGuire, the Senate Majority Leader, introduces a bill to block all state funding to restore coal rail.
“There’s just no way a freight operation will be able to make the necessary investments (to restore) this line,” McGuire said. “I’m confident the Great Redwood Trail Agency and the State can show how impossible it is to run a freight train on the North Coast.”
City councils and county boards of supervision from Marin to Humboldt County have passed resolutions expressing their opposition to any coal shipping proposals and their support for the recreational trail.
Beyond the immense costs and environmental risks of restoring North Coast rail lines, the specter of coal trains is politically unpopular in a heavily Democratic region that has for years rejected efforts to establish ports coal export to China and other Asian countries.
The coal train is expected to use the Sonoma-Marin region rail transit routes through Marin and Sonoma counties. SMART’s board declared its opposition to the project and scoffed at the prospect of coal-powered trains, often more than a mile long, passing through towns along SMART’s line.
You can contact editor Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or [email protected] On Twitter @AndrewGraham88