Early in Thursday night’s Zoom-enabled town hall meeting to discuss the Great Redwood Trail, State Senator Mike McGuire asked everyone in his remote audience to close their eyes and imagine.
“Imagine a strip of land,” he said, “roughly 50 feet wide and running for 320 miles, from the edge of the San Francisco Bay in Marin County through the vineyards of Sonoma County, showcasing the stunning beauty of Mendocino County through the redwood- and oak-studded hills of the Eel River Canyon, and then you’re gonna end your hiking adventure on the fog-shrouded shores of Humboldt Bay.”
While this ambitious trail project remains mostly imaginary, it took a major step forward on Thursday when the board of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) unanimously voted to railbank the agency’s right-of-way between Willits and Samoa, a move that would allow a multi-use trail to be built atop the existing railroad prism.
“Even a few years ago this [proposal] would have died on the vine,” NCRA Board Member Richard Marks declared afterwards on Facebook. “But the new board enthusiastically supported [the railbanking proposal] and the Great Redwood Trail will become reality and create many jobs and recreational opportunities.”
The board of the NCRA, which will soon transition into a trail authority, directed its staff to submit the necessary paperwork to the federal Surface Transportation Board. In a phone call with the Outpost Friday afternoon, Marks said he sees no reason why the railbanking proposal would be denied.
McGuire, who authored the legislation to dismantle the supremely dysfunctional NCRA and create the nation’s longest rail-to-trail, was characteristically exuberant Thursday evening. He noted that there’s “a ton of work ahead,” including developing a master plan, conducting feasibility and design studies, securing untold millions in funding and, eventually, building the trail.
“But I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “we’re off to one hell of a start.”
Millions of dollars have already been invested, and on December 8, McGuire introduced Senate Bill 69, which he said “will officially, and once and for all, disband the North Coast Railroad Authority, which is a hot mess and is bankrupt.” In its place the bill would create the Great Redwood Trail Authority and empower it to construct and operate eponymous pathway.
The NCRA was created in 1992 in an effort to salvage the floundering freight rail industry in Northern California, but the state agency’s mission — to preserve the rail corridor — was never funded, and when severe flooding and landslides wiped out portions of the rail line through the Eel River Canyon in 1998, the infrastructure remained defunct.
In 2008, voters at the southern end of the line approved the formation of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), a passenger rail system that has since resumed some passenger service with plans to eventually run from Larkspur to Cloverdale.
Kevin Wright, external affairs manager with Marin County Parks, said at last night’s meeting that the southern segment of the Great Redwood Trail will run alongside the existing rail line while the northern segment, from Willits to Humboldt Bay, will likely vary dramatically, with wide, paved bikeways through cities and more narrow, “single-track” sections of dirt trail through more remote areas, including the Eel River Canyon.
“It’s a wild stretch,” he said, noting that having hiked and rafted through there, he’s seen lots of erosion, abandoned boxcars, derelict infrastructure and what he diplomatically called “great opportunities for environmental restoration.” But while acknowledging that some washed-out areas are indeed in bad shape, Wright said 75-85 percent of the canyon is ready and available for trail use.
The rail line, which was formerly leased long-term to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., includes 19 major trestles, 38 bridges and 42 tunnels, the longest of which is 4,313 feet long, Wright said. All these features will be incorporated into the Great Redwood Trail.
Michael Jones, the founder of active transportation consulting company Alta Planning + Design, was on hand Thursday night. (McGuire called him “an all-star in the trail world.”) And he offered an outline of the next steps in the process, including a master plan, which may require an environmental impact report and thus plenty of opportunity for public involvement. There’s also the question of where the funding will come from and who will build it.
Members of the public who live near the right-of-way have voiced concerns about privacy, security, liability, litter, access to agricultural operations and more, and Jones said those issues need to be taken seriously. “The public will have a huge role in this,” he said.
Laura Cohen, western regional director of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said during the meeting that such public access tends to increase property values along trails while boosting the economies of nearby communities via lodging, tourism, public sector expenditures and more.
He argued that the Great Redwood Trail will eventually take its place alongside the likes of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail as “an iconic American trail.”
McGuire said that the master plan will ensure that the public will have “a seat at the table” all the way through the process, and he expects it to take a year or two just to get the funding for that plan. But over the past 24 months, partners in this effort have managed to secure about $30 million to move some critical segments forward, including the four-mile gap in the Humboldt Bay Trail between Arcata and Eureka.
The ultimate cost of this ambitious project remains an open question, though last fall McGuire scoffed at a state report that found the price tag could run as high as $5 billion.
“My goal is to do this project right, not fast,” he said, explaining that funding could come from transportation agencies, voter-approved parks bonds, nonprofit groups and/or private investors.
“It’s complicated,” the senator said. “It’s not going to be easy. And we have eyes wide open going into it.”