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Great Redwood Trail to cost up to $5 billion, state report finds

The Great Redwood Trail, a planned 300-plus-mile footpath stretching from the San Francisco Bay north to Humboldt Bay along a decrepit rail line, could cost more than $1 billion to build and up to $4 billion more to address environmental impacts along the six-county route, according to a new state report.

The staggering sums were included in a study released last week by the California State Transportation Agency, which called both figures “preliminary” and “variable.” The final cost of the ambitious rail-to-trail conversion project will depend largely on the construction window, design, level of hazardous waste removal and other remediation work required across some of the North Coast’s most remote landscapes.

The 316-mile trail would be the nation’s longest nonmotorized path on a former railway. Supporters said the early cost figures were inflated and would not deter them from advancing the project. State estimates did not account for the long stretches of path that will be dirt or shale — not paved — and a future trail master plan will present a more accurate price tag, proponents said.

“I think it’s complete hogwash. It’s not based in reality,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who sponsored a 2018 bill that gave the project state recognition. “I’ve been incredibly clear that it’s a challenging project and this is going to take years to develop. But the numbers simply don’t add up, which is why we need to advance the master plan that will be the road map to the Great Redwood Trail’s success.”

Some of the trail’s greatest obstacles lie within the 50-mile Eel River Canyon north of Willits, where 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.

Trail proponents, however, see those needs as opportunities to draw in outside funding, including grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Superfund program or state dollars set aside for environmental protection.

“Our generation screwed things up, and it costs a lot of money to fix all the things we screwed up, but we have to do it,” said Caryl Hart, a member of the California Coastal Commission and incoming interim general manager of Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. “You just can’t have that stuff leaching into the river. This is just the kind of project that will attract money.”

Hart, the former director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, is also a board member for the North Coast Railroad Authority that currently oversees the defunct rail line, which hasn’t had an active rail operation north of Windsor since the mid-1990s. The debt-ridden public agency is set to be dissolved through a bill that McGuire said he’ll introduce early next year to make way for a new trail-focused agency to manage the preserved corridor, oversee path design and construction and handle maintenance.

How long it may take to build the trail — what the state report called “likely a multigenerational effort” — is less clear, with any timeline tied closely to the cost. The price goes up the longer it is delayed — from $3.1 million per mile in today’s dollars, according to the report, to about $4.6 million per mile in 2030.

McGuire, 41, said there was “no question” for him that the trail would be finished during his lifetime. Hart said she thought it would take to 20 to 25 years, citing as an example a paved county path that linked up to the Joe Rodota Trail. Regional Parks completed it in 2006 at a cost of $600,000 per mile.

“I do think that that’s completely realistic. You do it segment to segment, and that’s just how it works.” Hart said. “The canyon itself is the hard part. The rest is not that hard, and there is a lot of trail already built near Humboldt Bay.”

From McGuire’s initial 2018 legislation, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the North Bay’s 3-year-old passenger rail system, is poised to inherit the line from Healdsburg to just north of Cloverdale, SMART’s planned northern terminus. The same bill, SB 1029, cleared SMART to take over freight operations by allocating $4 million to buy out the line’s lone freight hauler, Northwestern Pacific Co.

SMART is tasked with building the paved portion of the trail network along its planned 70-mile service line from Larkspur to Cloverdale, plus the 2 miles north that it will oversee to the county line. To date, the rail agency and its partners have built path segments in Sonoma and Marin counties totaling 24 miles, with another 10 miles of segments already funded or under construction, according to a SMART spokesman.

Other paved urban segments that will be part of the Great Redwood Trail in Humboldt and Mendocino counties are already complete or in the planning and development stages. In January, Ukiah celebrated the opening of two new segments totaling about 1 mile on opposite ends of an existing 1-mile pathway. Together, the two projects cost about $4.6 million.

On Monday, the city of Ukiah hosted the California Natural Resources Agency for a virtual tour of the next 2 miles being planned south of the completed stretch. The city is seeking $4 million from the state to complete the project.

Mendocino County Supervisor-elect Mo Mulheren, a Ukiah City Council member since 2014, stressed the trail’s potential as an economic driver for the region. The state report estimates the trail would generate $24 million per year in local annual economic activity.

“This is a huge piece in making tourism happen in the Ukiah Valley. It’s really important for a well-rounded economic development plan,” Mulheren said. “It also connects a lower-income neighborhood to access to active transportation, which is definitely important so everybody feels connected to our community.”

McGuire hosted public town hall meetings about the Great Redwood Trail in Humboldt and Mendocino counties in the summer of 2019, but was forced to postpone those planned in Sonoma and Marin counties due to the Kincade fire. He said he hopes to get those meetings rescheduled for the first quarter of next year before kicking off the comprehensive trail master plan. That document may itself cost up to $10 million and take three years to complete, he said.

“So, this (state) report was a very initial first step, but ultimately we need to move forward on the trail master plan,” McGuire said. “This project will be done right, not done fast. And I’m a firm believer of ‘under-promise, over-deliver.’ That’s why we need the master plan. We need to be able to get firm numbers on what … costs will be and that’s what the master plan will do, and is what the public should want.”

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

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