North Coast’s ‘Great Redwood Trail’ wins approval in California Senate, but lacks funding
Imagine a 300-mile trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay taking hikers, bicycle and horseback riders through a stunning North Coast river canyon and old growth redwood forests.
It would cost untold millions of dollars and won’t come soon, but the idea for what’s called the Great Redwood Trail is embodied in state Sen. Mike McGuire’s bill, which would also abolish a debt-ridden public agency and put commuter train operator Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in charge of railroad freight service in its two counties.
The buzz is all about a trail along railroad tracks through some territory most people have never seen and which advocates are likening to the 210-mile John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada.
“It’s an amazing prospect,” said Alisha O’Loughlin, executive director of the 1,000-member Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “Something we’re very enthusiastic about.”
The trail, affording “gorgeous recreational opportunities,” would draw cyclists and equestrians from far and wide, she said.
The coalition’s only concern is that work on the trail not take priority over completion of pathways along the 70-mile SMART corridor in Sonoma and Marin counties. Just 16 miles of pathways have been built to date in segments from Healdsburg to San Rafael.
Caryl Hart, the former Sonoma County Regional Parks director and past chairwoman of the state Parks and Recreation Commission, said the proposed trail runs through “some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.”
North of Willits, the trail would adjoin unused tracks through the 50-mile Eel River Canyon, a remote, pristine area rich in wildlife with few public access points.
Following the designated wild and scenic river as it snakes toward the ocean near Arcata, the trail would pass by the Redwood National and State Parks in Humboldt County, including visitor favorite Founders’ Grove.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat whose district spans the North Coast from Marin County to the Oregon border.
His bill, SB 1029, zipped through three committees and final Senate approval, which came on May 30, without a single no vote.
Even the two Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee supported the trail bill - with cost estimates running into the hundreds of millions of dollars - most likely because there was no actual spending included.
Behind the lure of creating a world-class outdoor experience, the bill addresses the matter of an obscure public agency created in 1989 to preserve the North Coast freight rail line and oversee service. It operates on revenue of about $500,000 a year, primarily from property and equipment leases, but loses about $250,000 a year. In the absence of state funding, it has amassed a debt of about $9.5 million.
The bill would dissolve the Ukiah-based North Coast Railroad Authority, which has been faulted by its own auditor and the California Transportation Commission as a financial failure, leaving the state to resolve the debt.
Moving forward, creation of the Great Redwood Trail would require millions of dollars worth of studies, track improvements and maintenance and ultimately “very major” costs, “potentially in the hundreds of millions,” to build and operate the trail and rail line, according to a Senate committee analysis.
McGuire said $4 million has been earmarked in the Senate’s budget proposal for rail crossing repairs and the start of a right-of-way study and trail master plan - and nothing more.
But he is resolute about the need to abolish NCRA, deal with its “suffocating debt” and proceed with the trail, steps that have support from 21 organizations, including the state transportation commission, Sonoma County Regional Parks and a host of environmental groups.
“We know it’s a multiyear process,” McGuire said. “We’ve always known we couldn’t snap our fingers and clean up this financial mess in one year.”
NCRA has only two full-time employees - the executive director and his assistant - and four contract employees. Its payroll spending accounts for about half its operating budget.
Its persistent losses and excess liabilities were cited in an independent auditor’s report in 2016.
“This raises substantial doubt about NCRA’s ability to continue as a going concern,” the report by the Napa firm Pisenti & Brinker said.
The transportation commission said in a December report to state lawmakers that NCRA had failed to develop a plan “that makes the business case for its existence,” noting that it also is “routinely unable to pay its obligations.”