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.