Rail Dems Mull Trail Conversions

by Daniel Mintz, March 17, 2011

Boardmembers of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) are hearing an ongoing debate about converting the agency’s rail lines into trails, but they’ve taken no stances on it and aren’t sure about how it would be done.

The idea of converting the Eel River Canyon rail segment to a trail was a discussion item at the March 9 NCRA board meeting in Eureka. But many of those who advocated in favor of conversion were from the northern part of the county, where establishment of a trail between Arcata and Eureka has political support.

Trail conversion hinges on a process known as railbanking. Simply put, railbanking preserves a dormant rail corridor for freight hauling but allows other uses, such as trails, until rail operations are revived.

Arcata City Councilmember Shane Brinton read a letter from the City Council which recommends that the NCRA “investigate the public use options” of its rail corridor and consider railbanking.

Brinton said that he’s “a strong supporter of rail” but “locally, we all know about the geological issues with the Eel River Canyon and we all know about the financial issues with the state of California.” He told boardmembers that “we’re trying to look into the next decade and at what reasonable uses we have — and trails are one of those uses.”

The Eureka to Arcata stretch of the NCRA’s line is a more likely candidate for railbanking than the Eel River Canyon stretch because its costs and engineering have been studied and as Arcata City Councilmember Alex Stillman explained, part of it is already being designed for trail use.

Arcata has gotten state funding for the design of a 4.2 mile trail from Sunset Avenue to the Bracut lumber mill. The city’s plan is to run the trail alongside the rail line, Stillman said.

There’s no room for both rail and trail in other sections of the Arcata to Eureka stretch, however. Trail advocates support railbanking it and using the rail path as a trail. Otherwise, the cost of developing a bay trail will increase multifold.

But NCRA boardmembers disagreed on whether the rail line would have to be declared abandoned for railbanking to occur. Boardmember John McCowen said his understanding — based on a previous explanation from NCRA Attorney Chris Neary — is that railbanking “does involve removal of the rails and the ties, construction of a trail and the preservation of the corridor for future rail use if it becomes feasible.”

Neary said he’s not certain if approval of railbanking would “require the removal of the rail” and he added, “Certainly, you cannot remove rails until there is an abandonment approval by the STB (the federal Surface Transportation Board).”

“We’ve really got some chicken and egg issues here,” said Board Chairman Hal Wagenet.

According to a “fact sheet” from the Rails to Trails Conservancy that was part of the board’s agenda packet, railbanking can be requested when an agency files for abandonment with the STB. Rail lines and ties can be removed if railbanking occurs.

“However, if a line is railbanked, the corridor is treated as if it had not been abandoned,” according to the fact sheet.

During the public comment session, about two dozen people spoke in roughly equal numbers for and against railbanking and boardmembers struggled to grasp its implications.

Trail advocates said trail development is more feasible than rail redevelopment. Railroad supporters said once a trail is developed in a rail path, rail use is practically eliminated. And ranchland owners along the Eel River Canyon segment said they’re wary of the trespassing, nuisances and safety issues they believe would stem from trail conversion.

Boardmember and County Supervisor Clif Clendenen asked NCRA staff to clarify the railbanking process at the board’s April meeting and he said he’s “interested in how we can use railbanking as a tool” for railroad corridor preservation.

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