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Outdoors, Leisure and Sports

California Agency Surrenders Rail Line For The Great Redwood Trail

great redwood trail.jpg
Alicia Hamann
A future stretch of the Great Redwood Trail at the confluence of Blue Rock Creek and the mainstem Eel River

For many years, trail advocates have been looking at converting the unused railroad line that runs through California’s Mendocino and Humboldt counties. And now a decision by the agency that owns the rail corridor clears the way for the northern section of a 320-mile rail-to-trail path known as the Great Redwood Trail.

During a February 18 town hall forum last week, state Senator Mike McGuire announced that the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) voted to release the rail corridor for trail use.

That’s being done through a process known as railbanking, which preserves a rail corridor but allows it to be used for other purposes.

The recent events settle an ongoing and often adversarial debate about use of the rail line. Trail advocates have pushed for conversion while railroad supporters have insisted that the old rail line can be revived.

But now the NCRA is bankrupt and during the town hall, McGuire described the agency as a “hot mess.” And he said the authority will be re-formed as a trail management agency.

The rail corridor’s southern section originates in the San Francisco Bay area and is administrated by the voter-approved Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority. The agency is mandated to develop a trail alongside its passenger train system, which will be the southern stretch of the Great Redwood Trail.

The 320-mile rail-to-trail project known as the Great Redwood Trail, when completed, will be the longest such project in the United States.

A paved two-way bicycle path would be the choice for segments in and near cities and would cost $2 million to $4 million per mile. A single-track unpaved trail would run through the more rugged northern area and its cost is estimated at $15,000 to $25,000 per mile.

During the town hall forum, Michael Jones, founder of Alta Planning + Design, a national firm that designs rail to trail projects, said most of the northern trail area is “already dug out” and is level. Some of the segment’s bridges and trestles need to be replaced but others can be repaired.

“A lot of the heavy work has already been done,” said Jones. “Coming in and adding soil to make an unpaved pathway would be very straightforward.”

Once completed, the Great Redwood Trail will be “an iconic American trail,” he continued. It will be the nation’s longest rail to trail project.

McGuire has introduced Senate Bill 69, which disbands the NCRA, renames it the Great Redwood Trail Agency and creates a fund for trail-related investment.

Funding will be drawn from local and state transportation agencies, voter-approved state parks bond funding and non-profit and private funders.

The next step is the drafting of a master plan subject to public hearings. The trail’s planning, design and development won’t be done quickly.

“This will be a phased project, built over many years,” McGuire said.