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First new segment of the Great Redwood Trail project opens in Ukiah

UKIAH - An ambitious plan to build the nation’s longest trail on a former rail line took a leap forward in Mendocino County on Friday with the opening of a new mile of paved path in city limits. It was a small sign, heralded by a sizable crowd of cyclist and trail enthusiasts, of a route envisioned to one day stretch 320 miles from Humboldt Bay to San Francisco Bay.

“Today’s event represents the future for the North Coast. This officially represents the pivot point,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who authored the 2018 bill to create the walking path. “This trail is just as much a recreational project as it is an economic development project. This is going to open up opportunity for their local economies in the years and decades to come.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by more than 100 supporters. It was meant to celebrate the first trail segments completed since state authorization two years ago of the Great Redwood Trail. Overall, about 30 miles of the trail are now in place from Marin to Humboldt counties.

The new segments, totaling about ?1 mile, are on opposite ends of an existing 1-mile pathway that runs parallel to Mason Street along the abandoned rail line. The northern segment runs north of Clara Avenue, passing by a grand valley oak tree and over a bridge spanning Orr Creek. The southern stretch takes off at Gobbi Street and continues to Commerce Drive.

Together with the existing path, the whole project cost about $4.6 million, covered by state transportation and natural resource grants and other funds.

City officials said the trail would unify Ukiah’s downtown with nearby neighborhoods, providing residents the chance to get about and get to know each other in ways they couldn’t before.

“It really helps make connections in the community with relationship building,” said Ukiah Councilwoman Mo Mulheren, a candidate for county supervisor who helped spearhead the local project. “People from both sides of town can walk and meet each other. We really didn’t have that before.”

Trail advocates are already at work seeking funding for the area’s next segment, a 3-mile stretch south on county property.

To the north, beyond Willits, the trail is planned to run on dirt or shale path atop the abandoned rail line, which traverses the wild 50-mile Eel River Canyon. There, the railway has been buried by decades of landslides along its winding riverside path. The cost of restoring the line for freight traffic has previously been estimated at up to $1 billion.

That insurmountable hurdle in an age of diminished local freight hauling gave rise to the movement for a rail-to-trail project that would top all others in the country - offering the chance to one day hike or cycle from the far North Coast to the Bay Area.

Brent Harris wants a shot at being one of those intrepid travelers. The 67-year-old from Pt. Reyes Station was so inspired by the vision that he made the drive up to Ukiah on Friday.

“I’d love to be able to see the trail completed. What a great bike ride,” Harris said. “This is a small part of it that seemed like it was worth celebrating.”

A forthcoming planning process will take up to three years, McGuire said, and help identify the project’s estimated cost, anticipated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A second bill McGuire introduced in 2019 would shift ownership of the rail corridor to a successor of the North Coast Railroad Authority. The agency, which oversees freight operations but was never funded by the state, has amassed debts of at least $12 million over its 31-year existence. The bill would also provide Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit with money to buy out the line’s only freight rail operator, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which runs trains up to Windsor.

McGuire, in his closing remarks to the crowd, acknowledged that planning and building the trail won’t happen quickly and won’t be easy.

Tim Erickson, Ukiah’s public works director, noted that it took 25 years to secure money and build the city’s 2-mile segment.

“We’re just happy to be on this side of it and for it to be complete,” Erickson said. “Now it’s time to relax and enjoy it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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