For the second time in two months, a state transportation board has faulted the public agency that oversees North Coast freight rail service for failing to present a detailed account of its finances or plans for future operations.
Members and staff of the California Transportation Commission ripped a plan drafted by the North Coast Railroad Authority for failing to include enough material to make “informed decisions” on the debt-ridden 28-year-old local agency’s future.
NCRA’s seven-page strategic plan, submitted last month, lacked details on NCRA’s current finances, debt, market analysis, expected benefits, funding partners and “accountability measures,” Susan Bransen, the commission’s executive director, said in a report to the board.
She called the plan a “high level visionary document” that does not suitably inform state legislators and other stakeholders in North Coast rail transportation.
Commissioner James Ghielmetti, CEO of a Pleasanton-based land development firm, said during a Jan. 31 public meeting the plan “in its current form doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“There’s just no confidence level there,” said Commissioner Fran Inman, an official with a national real estate development company.
In December, the commission — which oversees state rail operations — said in a report to state lawmakers that NCRA, an obscure Ukiah-based agency charged with maintaining freight service along a 316-mile rail route from Napa to Eureka, had failed to develop a plan “that makes a business case for its existence.”
State Sen. Mike McGuire said Tuesday he shares the commission’s concerns.
“NCRA has to answer the pressing question: How are they financially viable long term?” he said.
The answer needs to come before the Legislature will consider any funding for the agency, McGuire said.
NCRA officials — including Mitch Stogner, the executive director of the agency that operates on a $510,000 annual budget, and board member John McCowen, a Mendocino County supervisor — said the agency’s future depends on securing a state subsidy of $500,000 to $1 million a year.
“The problem is obvious,” Stogner said. “The state hasn’t seen fit to provide (us) any operating revenue.”
Established by the Legislature in 1989, the agency was twice denied funding on vetoes by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Freight service on the line resumed to great fanfare in 2011 under a contract with Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., which currently runs two trains a week at night from Napa to Petaluma and Windsor.
“We have struggled mightily with the (funding) problem,” Stogner said. “Again we take a public whipping from the CTC.”
NCRA has a debt of about $5 million and with revenues of about $500,000 a year, primarily from property and equipment leases, loses about $250,000 a year, Stogner said.
With a state subsidy of $500,000, it could pay its bills, he said.
In his comments to the commission, McCowen acknowledged the need for more information.
“There are many questions that need to be answered,” he said, adding that the funding issue is paramount.
“I do believe the original vision to preserve railroad service on the North Coast is valid,” McCowen said.
David Keller of Petaluma, a longtime NCRA critic and a director with the Friends of the Eel River environmental group, said in an interview the agency has been “totally unresponsive” to the commission’s requests for a detailed business plan.