“NCRA has become, instead, a pretend railroad, existing primarily to garner federal and state funds as those involved, including Hauser during his brief tenure as NCRA’s chief executive, insist that an operating railroad will emerge someday.”

Dan Walters: An example of why state Legislature is a dysfunctional mess
By Dan Walters — Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Monday, June 27, 2005

When Arnold Schwarzenegger says the Legislature is insular, ineffective and beholden to special interests, he’s absolutely correct.

Senate Bill 792 is a perfect microcosm of legislators’ utter disconnection from reality and common sense, and their penchant for wasting their time and our money on favors and trivia.

Briefly, SB 792 would let an obscure entity called the North Coast Railroad Authority use $5.5 million in state funds, originally set aside to repay a federal loan, for operational purposes. But to understand its utter absurdity, one needs some history.

For 70 years, beginning in 1914, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad, operated a 300-mile-long line connecting the San Francisco Bay Area with Eureka, mostly carrying lumber. But NWP was a very expensive line to maintain because much of its track paralleled the Eel River, subject to damage from heavy winter rains and the region’s notoriously unstable geology. As freight business declined, Southern Pacific finally concluded that the NWP was a loser and in the 1980s, sought to shut it down. A private company was formed to buy it in the mid-1980s, but it went bankrupt two years later.

A local assemblyman, Dan Hauser, persuaded the Legislature to create the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) in 1989 to take over the northern portion of the line, contending that public ownership could make it viable. But NCRA experienced exactly the same problems that previous owners had seen. Seven years ago, federal officials shut down the railroad for poor maintenance. Ever since, its roadbed has continued to erode, its tracks have continued to rust and it has not functioned as a railroad in any rational sense. Nor could it function, any objective appraisal would easily conclude.

NCRA has become, instead, a pretend railroad, existing primarily to garner federal and state funds as those involved, including Hauser during his brief tenure as NCRA’s chief executive, insist that an operating railroad will emerge someday. Meanwhile it soaks up taxpayers’ money to pay the salaries of those whose only real purpose is to get more taxpayers’ money to pay their salaries. And local federal and state legislators, eager to deliver pork, keep seeking more, including regular injections of federal “disaster relief” funds to pay for storm damage on the fallacy that it really is a railroad.

Tens of millions of dollars have vanished down this rathole, although in 1998, as he was ending his
governorship, Pete Wilson vetoed one $2 million appropriation that supposedly would be spent to clean up the NCRA’s hopelessly tangled accounting system.

“His (Wilson’s) staff told my staff that the railroad was ill-conceived, bankrupt and not worth throwing good money after bad,” the legislator who had gotten the $2 million approved, Sen. Mike Thompson, told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Truer words were never spoken.

Thompson went on to Congress and has diligently sought more federal bucks for NCRA. His successor in the Senate, Wes Chesbro, has continued the tradition in Sacramento, pushed by local lumber and other business interests, which use the nonexistent railroad to bargain for better freight rates from truckers. After some of those interests contributed $60,000 to then-Gov. Gray Davis‘ campaign treasury in 2000, he allocated a whopping $60 million to NCRA as part of his “congestion relief” program – money that was never spent because the state soon found itself in deep financial trouble.

One of the boondoggle appropriations was a $12 million federal loan that Thompson now is trying to have forgiven. If he succeeds, Chesbro’s SB 792 would allow $5.5 million set aside for repayment of the loan to be used, instead, to underwrite NCRA’s overhead.

Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Niello asked some pointed questions about NCRA and its tangled
finances when the bill reached the Assembly Transportation Committee the other day, but Chesbro’s fellow Democrats didn’t hesitate to approve his measure – thus agreeing to pump another $5.5 million, money that could be used for vitally needed real transportation projects, down the rathole.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the California Legislature is dysfunctional.