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North Coast Railroad Authority shuts down, board rebrands as Great Redwood Trail Agency

In a pair of board meetings Monday, local officials rebranded a freight rail agency in charge of the abandoned rail line running from Willits to Humboldt Bay as the Great Redwood Trail Agency, focused on the 320 recreational trail project.|

Fulfilling a mandate passed by the state Legislature in 2018, local officials Monday rebranded a freight rail agency in charge of the rail corridor from the Sonoma County line to Humboldt Bay as the Great Redwood Trail Agency. Its focus: a groundbreaking, 300-mile recreational trail project.

The Great Redwood Trail Agency replaces the North Coast Railroad Authority, which for more than 30 years stewarded the railroad right of way but oversaw limited freight rail activity.

The state-chartered entity was plagued by debt and never secured a sustainable revenue stream. The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency took over freight rail operations from NCRA last month.

The new trail-focused agency will in July begin working with the state Coastal Conservancy on the master plan for a multiuse recreational trail that proponents hope will one day begin on the shore of San Francisco Bay and run 320 miles north, to the Humboldt Bay shoreline.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who pushed through bills to kick off the project, close the NCRA and fund SMART’s purchase of freight rail operations, spoke at the start of the new agency’s first meeting.

He called the shift in the agency’s name and purpose a “once in a lifetime transition,” from freight rail toward a pathway that will one day lead outdoor enthusiasts “through some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth.”

SMART will take charge of the trail system along its passenger line from Larkspur to Cloverdale. SMART’s trains today run from Larkspur to Santa Rosa, but construction of both the railroad and bicycle and pedestrian trails has been slowed by lawsuits and funding woes.

The Great Redwood Trail Agency will build the recreational path north from the Mendocino-Sonoma county line, including along ecologically sensitive stretches of the Eel River.

The agency begins with the same board of directors as the NCRA. Healdsburg Councilman David Hagele is serving as chair.

Despite the unceremonious end to NCRA forced by the state Legislature, Hagele cheered its 30-year tenure keeping a historic rail corridor in tact, if not restored, as previously envisioned.

State lawmakers formed the NCRA in 1989 to govern 316 miles of rail line and keep the public’s right of way intact, rebuffing an effort in the early 1980s to abandon the line that would have seen those property rights revert to private parties.

“Unbroken — I think that’s the key word in everything we’ve done here,” Hagele said.

The line north of Willitts was never restored after 1998, when fierce rain storms washed out segments of rail through the Eel River Canyon. Estimates for rebuilding the line have been as high as $2 billion.

NCRA did spend around $60 million in state funds earmarked by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000 to rebuild segments of rail from Napa to Windsor. But without an ongoing funding source, the agency was forced to take on loans to conduct routine track upgrades and other infrastructure projects. Much of its debt was held by the only freight rail operator on its line, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company.

The company is co-owned by former North Coast Rep. Doug Bosco, who helped create the NCRA. Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, owner of The Press Democrat.

His freight company operated on clearly favorable terms with NCRA: The contract did not require any payments from NWP Co. to NCRA until the freight operator reached $5 million in annual revenues — a threshold it never met.

McGuire smoothed SMART’s acquisition of the freight rail system with a $4 million purchase of NWP Co.

As he has in the past, McGuire criticized the NCRA in his remarks, describing it as “an agency that for 30 years was the center of controversy on the North Coast,” and was “constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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