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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.”

Hart, an Occidental resident who is also a new member of the NCRA board of directors, made the motion to give McGuire’s bill a qualified endorsement at her first meeting in March. It was unanimously approved.

“This isn’t an either-or proposition,” she said. “This is a ‘you-have-to-do-something issue.’ ”

Allowing the NCRA to go bankrupt and still have to pay its debts, along with abandoning the railroad right of way, is “not an option,” she said.

Nor would environmental groups, such as Friends of the Eel River, tolerate harm to the river from ruined rails collapsing into the water, Hart said.

There is no intention to restore freight train operations through the river canyon, where estimates of the cost of repairing the storm and slide-damaged line run as high as $1 billion.

California voters have consistently supported parks and waterways, Hart said, pointing to Tuesday’s 56 percent approval of Proposition 68, which authorized $4 billion in state bonds for parks and natural resources protection.

The November ballot will include a proposed $8.9 billion bond that earmarks $2.4 billion for parks and conservancies to restore and protect watershed lands.

Hart contends that bond measures, state funding and private philanthropy can ultimately pay for the trail, which supporters say could provide a sorely needed economic boost to the North Coast.

McGuire’s bill would abolish the NCRA and transfer management of the rail line’s northern segment, from Willits to Arcata, to a new public entity called the Great Redwood Trail Agency by July 2019.

The line south of Willits would be transferred by April 2019 to SMART, which began operating commuter train service from near the Sonoma County Airport to San Rafael in August.

SMART would be required to conduct a study of rail freight service south of Willits, create or assign the positions of trail manager and freight rail manager and submit annual reports to the Legislature.

McGuire noted that SMART’s original mandate was to “advance both rail and trail,” as well as passenger service.

“They can take on freight service,” he said, adding that freight holds “revenue potential” for SMART.

Debora Fudge, chairwoman of the SMART board of directors, said the organization supports McGuire’s bill.

“It makes sense to us that one agency manages both passenger and freight rail,” she said. “SMART understands that freight is important to some businesses in Sonoma County.”

Asked if SMART might consider a new approach to freight operations, she said the board has put off that discussion until the bill becomes law.

Northwestern Pacific, a private company, operates nighttime freight trains two or three times a week between Napa and Windsor, partly on tracks it shares with SMART.

Doug Bosco, an NWP co-owner, said the company has 88 years remaining on a 2006 contract with NCRA. If the state were to deprive NWP of any contract benefits, the state Constitution would require compensation to the company, Bosco said.

In addition, NWP, the line’s sole freight operator, has “a right and an obligation” to serve its customers under a license from the federal Department of Transportation, he said.

Bosco said he “totally favors” the trail “but we are going to have to work the railroad into that.” The railroad is profitable, he has said, declining to cite recent annual revenues.

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

McGuire said that NWP representatives have been “active and engaged” in discussions of the freight operator’s future in the event NCRA is abolished. Among the issues to be resolved is the $4.4 million NCRA owes to NWP, accounting for nearly half of the agency’s debt, McGuire said.

The contract, scorned by critics of the close ties between NCRA and NWP, allows the freight operator to pay nothing for use of the rail line until it earns more than $5 million a year, which has never happened. Freight operations were restored in 2011.

Bosco and NCRA officials have agreed it is time to renegotiate the contract.

Senate approval of McGuire’s bill came on a bipartisan 36-0 vote and the measure now moves to the Assembly.

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

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