Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
LITTLE RIVER, 11/11/20 — A beautiful trail through some of Northern California’s most stunning land, a path through ancient redwood forests, along cold, clear, rivers, and over golden chaparral mountains. That’s the picture State Senator Mike McGuire paints when he describes a completed Great Redwood Trail, which he says would, “open up some of the most beautiful stretches in Northern California.” So, curious about the status of the trail, The Mendocino Voice checked in with Sen. McGuire to see how the project is moving along.
In brief, Northern California shouldn’t expect a finished path any time soon, but smaller city-length pieces up and down the 320 mile route are already in the works — and a piecemeal approach with regional stretches completed long in advance of the full-length could bring benefits to local communities much sooner.
The project is complicated, involving a public agency deeply in debt, some-millions of dollars, and years of planning that have not even begun. Simply creating the “master plan” for the trail is going to take 36 to 48 months and cost anywhere between $7 to $10 million, according to McGuire.
McGuire presented his idea for the Great Redwood Trail, which would run from Novato, in Marin County to Blue Lake, in Humboldt, two years ago, in 2018. In the past, the senator has said that the trail would boost the economy of the communities it will go through. Now, as COVID and subsequent shutdowns devastate the economy nationwide, the potential economic boost from the trail would be even more important.
“We know California’s economy is focused on outdoor recreation,” says McGuire. “Our outdoor recreation economy generates $92 billion a year and $30 billion wages, and $6 billion in tax revenues. One of the most significant parts of the outdoor recreation economy are trails…We believe this trail is going to be a significant economic driver for the North Coast.”
Although the ribbon cutting for the entire trail may be years away, the trail is being slowly pieced together, with some disjointed sections already built or being constructed as the state gathers the funds necessary to see this project through. So far, the largest chunk of money secured for the trail, $32 million, has come from trail grant programs from the California Transportation Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The California Transportation Commission is responsible for organizing projects and allocating funds for transportation throughout the state, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is responsible for the same in the San Francisco Bay area. For both, transportation includes active forms such as walking and biking.
For instance, one piece of trail that has already been constructed runs through Ukiah, parallel to the train tracks from Brush street to East Gobbi Street. In total, there are 32 unconnected miles of trail between Marin and Humboldt which are currently under construction or finished, amounting to 10% of the total length of the prospective trail, which will run an estimated 320 miles.
While the idea of a walking and biking trail that would run through some beautiful stretches of California is no-doubt attractive, that part of the project is more like a shiny front cover than the whole story.
There is a lot to be done before residents and tourists alike will have the chance to walk or bike through the hills, adjacent to the Eel River, and along the coast on what is planned to be the longest rail-trail in the country.
Phase 1: Paying off old debts
Currently, the state is in phase one: paying off significant debt accrued by the North Coast Railroad Authority.
The California Legislature created the North Coast Railroad Authority in 1989 to revitalize the railroad system in Northwest California for transportation and freight. However, they were not able to make the railway into a profitable system and eventually fell into $10 million dollars of debt. Now, the state is transitioning the failed railroad project into a rail-to-trail project. In order to do that, they are paying off the North Coast Railroad Authority’s debts and will dissolve the agency when that is done.
The process of paying off the debt and getting rid of the Railroad Authority began back in 2018, when Governor Jerry Brown signed McGuire’s bill, SB 1029, to create the trail.
In essence the state has taken control of the right-of-way the tracks sit on from Marin to Humboldt, and also assuming the debt of the previous owner. According to McGuire, the state has paid off around $7 million of the $10 million debt.
“We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
McGuire says he hopes the North Coast Railroad Authority’s debts will be fully paid off and that the Authority can be dissolved by the first quarter of 2021.
Phase 2: Planning the trail
Now that the state only has $3 million left to pay on the Railroad Authorities debts, they are beginning to actually plan. According to McGuire, the first draft of the trail “master plan” will be released sometime early in the new year and will include a rough estimate of the total cost of the project. McGuire predicts that the planning and the creation of a final master plan may take up to four years and cost between $7 to $10 million. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re gonna have a trail completed in two to three years,” notes McGuire.
“We need to do this project right, not fast,” he says.
The master plan will answer questions such as what the trail should be built from, which sections should be built first, whether it should be just for people on foot or for bikers and horseback riders as well, and more. There are certainly many questions to answer one of which will be workshopped in community forums beginning in 2021.
Additionally, before the state can begin building, they need to get permission from the Federal Government to remove the tracks and transition the railroad to a trail. “The Federal Government has approved the transition from rail to trail all across the U.S., we anticipate they will do the same here,” said McGuire, who expects the states formal application to make the switch to be submitted before 2021.
Although the completion of the continuous 320 mile trail is still far off, shovels may start hitting the ground much sooner in some areas. The state has secured around $20 million to work on sections of trail that are less complicated to build. Those sections are largely in incorporated areas, such as the trail in progress running through Ukiah, or a section of the Great Redwood Trail in Willits.
Phase 3: Building
Although some individual communities, such as Ukiah, have already broken ground on trails, trail creation in the more remote reaches won’t begin until the planning phase is completed. Once the final master plan has been written and engineers and rail-trail experts have been consulted, the building phase may begin. Trail builders will face substantial challenges, especially in the Eel River Canyon where bridges and perhaps even tunnels will be required to make the trail passable during large parts of the year. And the original tracks were built in an era of non-existent environmental regulations. With our modern regime of environmental impact reports, not to mention concerns of neighboring property owners, construction of contentious stretches may not come for many years.