Great Redwood Trail gets key funding for blueprint tied to making 316-mile path ‘a reality’

The Legislature allocated $16.5 million to plan the 316-mile ribbon of converted railway tying Humboldt Bay to San Francisco Bay.|

State Sen. Mike McGuire was unable to disguise his excitement Friday.

The 316-mile foot and bike path envisioned to one day connect much of his North Coast district, joining Humboldt Bay in the north with San Francisco Bay in the south, took a big leap forward this week.

With a $16.5 million earmark included in the $262.6 billion state budget, the trail project that McGuire and others have championed now has funding to advance beyond mere concept to an actual on-the-ground design.

Two thirds of the dedicated funding will be used to craft a blueprint for the trail, the nation’s longest on a former railbed. It would span four counties and bisect the corner of a fifth, running through towering redwood forests and the remote Eel River canyon.

The trail’s master plan will determine what it will look like in stretches — paved in some areas, gravel and single-track in others. It will also nail down construction, operation and maintenance costs.

“It will give us, for the first time, an accurate read on what the construction costs will be,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

“This massive investment,” he added, “represents an historic turn, a turn away from a defunct and crumbling rail line to a trail that will be an economic driver and environmental showcase.”

The new money from the state “insures that the Great Redwood Trail isn’t a dream,” he said.

Screenshot of the illustrated sign that will be used to promote the Great Redwood Trail. (NCRA)
Screenshot of the illustrated sign that will be used to promote the Great Redwood Trail. (NCRA)

To reinforce that message, at Friday’s news conference, McGuire’s team unveiled the official sign that will be used to mark the trail: a majestic Roosevelt elk in full bugle, framed by old growth redwoods. Signs will start going up later this summer, he said.

Some sections of the trail have already been built. Of the $16.5 million allocated by the legislature, $4 million will go toward improving the southern section of the trail – part of the pathway managed Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit.

Caryl Hart, a North Coast Railroad Authority director, on a section of railroad in Cloverdale, looks forward to the planned Great Redwood Trail, which would provide a 300-mile walking and cycling trail from Larkspur to past Eureka, along the rail line, on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)
Caryl Hart, a North Coast Railroad Authority director, on a section of railroad in Cloverdale, looks forward to the planned Great Redwood Trail, which would provide a 300-mile walking and cycling trail from Larkspur to past Eureka, along the rail line, on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

“We already have a solid start on the trail in Marin and Sonoma Counties,” said Caryl Hart, who joined McGuire at Friday’s event. A member of the California Coastal Commission, she also sits on the board of the North Coast Rail Authority, the public agency that previously existed to oversee freight operations and rebuild parts of the defunct line north of Windsor.

With SMART now in charge of freight rail as well as passenger service, NCRA has been overhauled for one purpose: to get the Great Redwood Trail finished.

The latest progress is in the southern half, where crews are at work in Healdsburg on a section of trail that should be open by the end of this summer, said Hart. That segment and all others in Sonoma and Marin counties will double as part of the foot and bike path planned to accompany SMART’s 70-mile service line from Larkspur to Cloverdale.

The rail agency also is in charge of final 2 miles north to the Sonoma-Mendocino border. About 24 miles of that network have already been constructed, with plans to add another 9 miles by 2023, though a recent lawsuit is likely to extend that timeline.

Participants in the opening-day event for a new segment of the Great Redwood Trail in Ukiah walk a stretch near Orr Creek that completed a 2-mile paved path within city limits, on Jan. 31, 2020. (Kevin Fixler / The Press Democrat)
Participants in the opening-day event for a new segment of the Great Redwood Trail in Ukiah walk a stretch near Orr Creek that completed a 2-mile paved path within city limits, on Jan. 31, 2020. (Kevin Fixler / The Press Democrat)

Last year, Ukiah became the first city to officially open a part of the Great Redwood Trail, with usable sections totaling just under two miles.

“And I’m proud to say we’re working hard to expand that trail to cover the entire length of the city,” said Mendocino County Supervisor Mo Mulheren. She is a former mayor of Ukiah who’s been a driving force in getting those sections built, and in securing a $3.5 million grant that will extend the trail through the rest of the city.

Emily Sinkhorn, director of environmental services for Arcata, noted forlornly that the rail corridor “used to be an economic driver for our region.”

But it was a costly endeavor to sustain in an era of highway shipping, with slides and washouts in the Eel River canyon proving too onerous to carry on.

The new money from the Legislature, she said, helps ensure that the rail corridor will once again “serve a public benefit, and expand transportation” – by foot and bicycle, at least – “within and between communities.”

McGuire was quick to amplify the point, touting the path as a powerful addition to the region’s tourism economy, drawing visitors to a journey with equal parts wilderness, farms and suburban cityscapes.

California’s outdoor recreational economy, he noted, generates about $95 billion every year, and “is responsible for 700,000 jobs, and $30 billion in wages.”

Those numbers will have to stack up against others looming over the trail project, including its cost, which is likely to be in the hundreds of millions, at least.

Late last year, the California State Transportation Agency said it could take more than $1 billion to build and up to $4 billlion more to address environmental impacts along the route.

In the Eel River Canyon abandoned rail cars and failing or collapsed bridges, tunnels and culverts need removal. Toxins from decades of freight traffic will require intensive cleanup, and mitigation for disturbed wetlands is expected to cost more than $100 million.

McGuire called that report “hogwash” at the time, and transportation officials stressed the figures were “preliminary” and “variable.” The master plan, expected to take two to three years, is meant to provide a more detailed examination of potential costs.

On Friday, McGuire focused on how “transformational” – he used the word several times – the new funds will be.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said, “and we have just taken one giant step closer to making it a reality.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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