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State Sen. Mike McGuire is proposing to reorganize management of the North Coast’s railroad system aimed at enabling people to walk — not ride — along a trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay, including the spectacular Eel River Canyon in Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg, to create a “world-class experience in our own backyard.”

Caryl Hart, a former Sonoma County parks director, joined McGuire in hailing the proposed trail as an opportunity to traverse the coastal redwoods from Cloverdale to Arcata.

“It’s a dream,” she said likening the trail along the tracks to the Pacific Crest Trail through the Sierra Nevada and giving the local area an economic boost in the process. “I really think it has the potential to be a bedrock of the economy of the North Coast.”

Freight train operations between Napa and Windsor will continue and possibly expand into Mendocino County but are unlikely to ever run farther north than Willits because of the formidable cost of restoring the rail line through the canyon, which runs for about 50 miles north of Dos Rios, where the Main and Middle forks of the Eel River converge.

The canyon is a wild, remote place with few public access points, rich in wildlife, with an officially designated wild and scenic river flowing by a slide-damaged railroad and collapsed tunnels.

The southern leg of the trail would run along the North Bay commuter rail line that began passenger service last year and intends to ultimately run from Larkspur to Cloverdale.

The trail’s northern segment, running from Willits to Arcata, would be developed and managed by a new public entity called the Great Redwood Trail Agency to be established in the next two years.

McGuire’s plan, contained in a bill he intends to amend by Friday, would abolish the debt-ridden public agency that has overseen North Coast freight rail service since 1989, transferring its northern assets to the proposed trail agency and southern assets to an as-yet undetermined manager, possibly Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the commuter rail operator.

“All options are on the table,” McGuire said, adding that SMART could be the “successor agency” to manage the rail line.

The bill sets an April 1, 2019, deadline for the transfer of railroad assets to the new managing agencies. The northern segment will initially be ceded to Caltrans, which will conduct an environmental assessment of the rail line prior to turning it over to the trail agency by Jan. 1, 2021.

Also to be determined is funding for the two management agencies; that will be part of state budget discussions running through May, McGuire said.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on McGuire’s bill.

The North Coast Railroad Authority, which has managed the entire 316-mile rail line from Napa to Arcata for the past 29 years, is not standing in the way of McGuire’s plan.

The agency’s board of directors unanimously gave McGuire’s measure, SB 1029, a qualified endorsement at its meeting Wednesday in Ukiah on a motion offered by rookie board member Hart.

“The bottom line is I think this organization sees the handwriting on the wall,” said Hart, who resigned as Sonoma County’s parks director last year and was attending her first NCRA board meeting.

Mitch Stogner, the NCRA’s executive director, said the reorganization — which would eliminate his job — would likely bring state financial support for the first time to North Coast freight service, which was restored by the NCRA in 2011 and currently runs from Napa to Windsor.

“Maybe the state is finally ready to make a commitment to this rail corridor, and that’s good,” he said. “Whatever you call the governing body is not that important.”

NCRA, formed by state lawmakers in 1989, loses about $250,000 a year and has amassed a debt of about $5 million. It receives no state funding.

The agency has two full-time employees — Stogner and his assistant — and four contract employees, and has been harshly criticized by a state transportation board for failing to develop a detailed account of its finances or plans for future operations.

James Ghielmetti, a California Transportation Commission member, said in January the NCRA’s strategic plan “in its current from doesn’t make any sense at all.”

McGuire said last month he shared the commission’s concerns, adding that NCRA must present a viable longterm financial plan before the Legislature would consider funding for the agency.

Stogner, who has run the NCRA since 2003, has consistently pointed to a pair of vetoes by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that denied funding for the agency responsible for managing a 316-mile rail corridor.

The agency’s future, he has said, depends on securing a state subsidy of $500,000 to $1 million a year.

Hart said her motion to back McGuire’s bill hinged on its consistency with the NCRA’s strategic plan calling for extending freight rail service in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and developing it in Humboldt County, while setting aside the stretch in between, including the Eel River Canyon, for a future trail.

The cost of restoring the rail line through the canyon is estimated to cost as much as $1 billion and is vigorously opposed by environmentalists.

Doug Bosco, a co-owner of Northwestern Pacific, the rail line’s only freight carrier under a longterm contract with NCRA, said he assumes the operation will continue under the new management structure.

“We’d have to reach some sort of agreement,” he said, adding that the state “would have to account for Northwestern Pacific’s lease.”

Bosco is a former North Coast congressman and an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

NWP, a private company, hauls lumber products, grain and livestock feed, rock, cement and other commodities on two to three nighttime trips between Napa and Windsor, partly on tracks it shares with SMART. The company would pick up added business if its trains could reach Cloverdale, where it would serve local businesses as well as lumber companies farther north that would haul products by truck to Cloverdale, Bosco said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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