“Elected representatives from both public agencies can remove themselves, and hence the public, from the equation.”

Town Dandy – The North Coast Journal
Hank Sims
June 26, 2008 

In the next couple of weeks, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District will contrive to sell one of its principal assets — the Redwood Dock in Samoa, which it acquired a couple of years ago — to private investors. Actually, “sell” is probably overstating the case. In all likelihood, the district will more or less give it away, as the North Coast Railroad Authority gave a 99-year concession to a private operator (NWP Inc.) free of charge. The logic being that private capital will accomplish what the Bay District and the Railroad Authority — public agencies, both — cannot. The logic is that private capital will build the grand international shipping terminal envisioned for Humboldt Bay, at the same time resuscitating the 300 miles of moribund railroad track between Samoa and the Bay Area.

The obstacles to this vision have been chronicled in these pages ad infinitum (“Town Dandy,” passim). They have never been addressed. They cannot be addressed, at least by public agencies, because both the railroad and the harbor district must be all things to all people. They must project massive amounts of freight to be considered financially viable; they must project very little freight to be palatable to environmentalists and Marin County residents whose neighborhoods the trains will pass through. So, in the end, they must have no projections at all.

Offload the public assets to a private firm, though, and you’ve solved most of your political problems (if none of your financial, geotechnical or environmental ones). That’s why the upcoming deal with Goldman Sachs — which is offering to peddle the port and rail assets in exchange for a slice of the action — is, sorry to say, a stone-cold certainty. Elected representatives from both public agencies can remove themselves, and hence the public, from the equation. And they have the votes to do it.

But if you’d like to pop some popcorn and watch it go down, you can head to the Wharfinger Building in Eureka Thursday evening at 7, where the Bay District will be meeting to discuss the deal. No action will be taken then, but the district will talk about its brand-new business plan, which coincidentally (?) includes talk of just the sort of deal that Goldman Sachs allegedly sprung on the district’s board out of the blue. The deal itself will be cut a couple of months down the line. In the meantime, the Humboldt Bay Stewards, a nonprofit group, is planning a big symposium on the deal to take place sometime in early August.

Meanwhile, the North Coast Railroad Authority recently lost an appellate court case seeking to quash the lawsuit brought against it by the city of Novato, Marin County and a slew of environmental organizations. The suit will proceed. It alleges that the railroad violated the California Environmental Quality Act in preparing for the reopening of the southern end of the line; plaintiffs demand that the agency’s CEQA documentation take into consideration the “entire project” — including the mass cargo the Authority and the Bay District say they’ll soon be shipping through Humboldt Bay.

How does the NCRA respond to this loss? According to a Willits News article, they respond by saying that they’ll take the case to federal court. Why? Because suddenly the railroad authority, a state agency, wants to make the case that it is not bound by California environmental law at all!

Federal court, eh? Maybe they’ll see some people they know in the hallways.