WILLITS, CA, 8/9/22 — Plans are full steam ahead for the Great Redwood Trail crossing Northern California, but one alternate proposal for a short portion of rail in Mendocino County still has the potential to advance after the Surface Transportation Board rejected other bids. The Great Redwood Trail Agency (GRTA), formerly the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), hopes to remove old rail lines from Marin County to Humboldt County and pave over them, converting the rail to a trail in a process called railbanking. But Mendocino Railway, owners of the Skunk Train, are bidding to resurrect — rather than railbank — a 13-mile section of the track north of Willits to ship gravel.
The more-than-300-mile trail that would extend from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay is a project championed by State Senator Mike McGuire (D-02), designed to repurpose rail lines no longer in use and create a corridor for walking and biking; if completed, it would be the longest rail trail in America. Millions in state funding have been allocated toward realizing the trail, which capitalizes on California’s booming outdoor recreation industry (worth nearly 44.5 billion dollars, the highest of any state).
“The Great Redwood Trail is more than just an excursion trail,” State Senator Mike McGuire told The Mendocino Voice. “It’s going to be an economic driver for rural communities that have built up alongside this rail over the last century.”
The GRTA filed with the Surface Transportation Board this spring to discontinue service along what’s called the Eureka Line, seeking to railbank around 175 miles of rail line in Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt Counties in order to lay the groundwork for the Great Redwood Trail. The GRTA owns the line; it had been leased to Northwestern Pacific Railway Co., a company which no longer exists and did not use the line for transportation over its more than 20-year stewardship, the filing details.
But these filings allow for oppositions from other rail companies, and a small company in Mendocino County doesn’t want to give up on the rail line’s original purpose. Mendocino Railway objected to the GRTA’s proposal to formally abandon the section of trail, and then became one of several petitioners — including the rejected “toxic coal train” proposal with murky out-of-state origins — to offer an alternate use for a section of the rail.
Mendocino Railway President Robert Jason Pinoli said Mendocino Railway’s first filing, in summer of 2021, was designed to prevent the GRTA from “leapfrogging on the gameboard” and abandoning the rail without an opportunity to propose alternate uses. He also argues that his proposal shouldn’t interfere with the trail project.
“There’s no reason why you can’t have a trail adjacent to a rail corridor,” Pinoli told The Voice. “We want to see both, we support both, and we think both can exist in harmony.”
He said that a potential client of Mendocino Railway’s asked the company to ship gravel for them via the 13 miles of rail in Mendocino County, in what would amount to 40,000 tons each year. (He declined to disclose this client’s name). Mendocino Railway is eager to provide this service — and beyond that, Pinoli said, he doesn’t want to see the potential for rail transportation shut down completely in the corridor.
“Mendocino County right now relies on highways and trucks to get 100% of its goods and services in and out of the county,” he said. “You can’t be a champion for the environment and subscribe to highways and trucks as your only mode of transportation to get goods and services in and out.”
Mendocino Railway has given its notice of intent to file an Offer of Financial Assistance (OFA), in which a party offers to purchase and provide continued rail service on a line which the carrier seeks to abandon. Mendocino Railway’s final OFA is due to the Surface Transportation Board on Aug. 18, and the board’s ruling on the abandonment should then come by the end of the month.
All sources agree that the rail in question has long been in disrepair — Pinoli referenced “a substantial amount of work to be done, including replacement of the railroad ties” — but trail stakeholders feel the rail is no longer able to function or worth repairing.
“The NCRA had been there for decades, and their mission was to restore rail service,” said Neil Davis, director of community services with the city of Ukiah. “And at a certain point, you realize there’s not a viable plan for bringing rail service back.”
Davis was an early advocate for the trail and one of the people championing its existence and expansion in Ukiah, where the current trail portion is being extended to just over four miles in length. He shares Pinoli’s affinity for responding to climate change but sees the Great Redwood Trail as a key part of this response, calling it one of “the kinds of changes that make people decide not to own a car, and to walk or ride their bikes.”
Davis also feels that the trail is a wildfire management opportunity in Ukiah and beyond.
“The more we can maintain that corridor, paving it instead of having the rails there, all of a sudden it turns into a giant fire break through the inland of Mendocino County,” he explained. “So it’s a 100-foot-wide corridor that we can maintain as a fire break — and if it’s paved it becomes an access lane for emergency vehicles, whether that’s for fire or for other issues.”
Financial considerations are a significant factor in the proposal to railbank, too. McGuire’s office estimates that railbanking will also cost much less than repairing the existing rail and running trail alongside the railway would. Beyond the repairs needed to the rail, laying down new trail requires significant site assessments and clearing that paving over a former rail line would not.
“Rebuilding these 13 miles of track will be in the tens of millions of dollars,” McGuire told The Voice. “Now, railbanking the line will cost anywhere between $15 and 25,000 a mile, depending on where the rail is at — so, incredibly cheaper.”
Pinoli disputes those figures, saying, “Frankly, their numbers have not been accurate.” McGuire said the numbers came from an engineer his office has contracted with, but that “any engineer will tell you building a trail on top of the rail line … will save the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.”
Pinoli also said that a meeting with McGuire about Mendocino Railway’s proposal this July went well; but in an August interview with the Voice, McGuire maintained that Mendocino Railway’s proposal would put an undue burden on taxpayers and potentially jeopardize the future of the trail as envisioned.
“Railbanking is the only way to ensure the completion of the Great Redwood Trail and to protect the public’s right of way in perpetuity,” McGuire said.
He affirmed his respect for Mendocino Railway’s role in the community, calling the Skunk Train “a beautiful and historic excursion train” but said the company’s struggle with a collapsed tunnel combined with its primary experience in tourism calls into question its capacity for a project of this scale.
But Pinoli said the gravel train operation would not be unusual for Mendocino Railway, explaining that they contract with other companies once or twice per month in “a busy year” to offer hauling services by rail.
“We do a lot of small projects, so we will oftentimes be contacted by other public utilities such as the phone company or the electric company,” he said. “So AT&T or PG&E, when they can’t get to remote areas, will contract with us to take people and equipment and supplies out to make repairs to their infrastructure that is adjacent to the railroad corridor.”
For this reason, he would also “dispute out of hand” the notion that Mendocino Railway’s bid to ship gravel by rail is meant to cement its public utility claim to purchasing the former Georgia Pacific mill site in Fort Bragg. (The city is currently disputing Mendocino Railway’s public utility status in court).
More detailed information on Mendocino Railway’s proposal — as well as the Surface Transportation Board’s decision on the 175 miles of North Coast rail line the GRTA hopes to railbank — will be publicly available in late August following filing deadlines.
But McGuire feels that the people of California have already thrown their support behind a railbanked corridor — and he encouraged residents to keep an ear out for more trail news in 2022 with the launch of the Great Redwood Trail Master Plan.
“Stay tuned, because this will be an aggressive roadshow,” he said. “We’re going to be taking the Master Plan on the road, seeking feedback in big communities and small throughout the North Coast. That will be coming up later this fall.”
Wow ,this the first I’ve heard of this plan !!! I have alot of mixed feelings about this and rightfully so as the rail line represents a very large part of my local heritage !!! My grandfather Richard “Roy” Rexrode my thr Lord rest his soul was the Line Forman and Field Engineer !!! He in fact played a great part in the lines up dating or up grading to all or most of the 28 plus trussels, bridges and river crossing amoung a great many other vital responsibilities to maintains the lines functional operations!!! This was back when the line employed the greater part of my family and tge line was still shipping freight directly out of the Georgia Pacific Mill as well as the Passenger Line !!! For awhile he even pulled double duty as the Round House Forman which was directly responsible for all the maintenance of the Engines , passenger and freight cars ,up until my Uncle Richard or “Dick” Rexrode ,tool over that position !!! In my opinion the the Line suffered after a few key locals voiced unfair practices of favouritism towards the larger amount of employees where infact relatives and or family friends !!! At this point ,my own father was not permitted to actually be a registered employee there dispite the fact he had all the nessary skills to be great value to the once prestigious line and many times would “Moonlight” there working off the record or “books” in order to assist his father and brothers , with some of the moore labor intensive functions like swapping out truck assemblies and tires , much like the axles and tires for highway use , nust a whole lot heavier and larger as to be entirely made of steal !!! Its was not too many years after the bullshit favoritism complaints that ushered out most of my families involvement the line slowly deteriorated and more or less started to become a “Joke”,for lack of a better term !!! So anyways Yeah , i do have alot of reasons beyond my families heritage as i understand all the issues around , fire prevention ,utilities and service infrastructure, logistics as well as environmental pro and cons even the booming tourist industy amoug many other vital or important considerations to all parties involved in this proposal !!! In my opinion the “railbanking” as it is known as apparently sounds like a great idea and does have a great appeal twords my love of outdoors and Eco friendly side of this as well as my understanding of economic growth and development !!! They all have a legitimate part stake in this to be absolutely considered !!! There’sdefinitely going to gave to be alot of negotiated trade offs here as compromises will be the rule of the day !!! I truly have alot of mixed blessings or feelings on all sides of this latest development as i have just now recently made light of the proposed thoughts and ideas ?!?!?!
Pinoli is so full of it. His support for trails is soooo clear in Mendocino Railway’s STB filing on July 6, 2021 in which the company writes “While the NCRA Request indicates that Humboldt County and the City of Eureka are concerned about rising costs and that the City of Eureka wishes to solicit bids for certain projects that are contingent on railbanking, if an OFA is brought for all or a portion of the rail line there, will be no trails, and both public entities could avoid any costs at all.”
Mendocino Railway knew their actions would kill the trail, and the company is just fine with that.
Their filing goes on to argue that in fact Humboldt County and the City of Eureka shouldn’t be conducting any work on the Humboldt Bay Trail because it could “prohibit continued rail operations”.
So not only are they determined to bisect what could be one of the most stunning portions of the Great Redwood Trail in order to help a company known for violating air quality standards (https://mendovoice.com/2017/01/grist-creek-rejects-offer/), but they also took issue with continued trail development 120 miles north, where trail supporters had already managed to raise an additional $20 million for building as a “rail with trail” rather than “rail to trail”.
And of course Mendocino Railway’s efforts to take a portion of the NWP right of way could help them cement their claim to be a public utility, allowing them an avenue around permitting and environmental review of their development plans in Fort Bragg. Despite what Pinoli says, it is obvious to anyone involved that the company is desperate to secure that status to evade future violations like this one (https://theava.com/archives/195546) just lodged by the Coastal Commission.
Our community need jobs! Too many idle hands around here as it is….what really is disgusting about this situation is Public tax dollars trying to push private business out!
Heavy rail? Great. Cheap gravel delivered more efficiently and safer than heavy trucking. And a nature trail? Even better.
All this whoop about preventing rail enterprises seem to avoid the question of whether it’ll be a good thing. Would it bring in tourism? Would it bring jobs? Would it be kinda cool? And trails along the rail lines- why not?
So the naysayers who are against literally everything, and ESPECIALLY anything cool or fun… how about refocusing your efforts on something more worthwhile like raising a little Cain about the sewage treatment facility instead? Ya know, the one that regularly makes the entire town smell like a freshly tipped outhouse?
I mean trendy as it is to be against everything, gravel is needed for roads and concrete. The carbon footprint of rail compared to heavy trucking is tiny comparatively, and way safer. Besides, the hobos of Fort Homeless need a train to ride.
40,000 annual tons of gravel equal 400 rail car trips @ 100 tons per car. A simple equation Mr. Pinoli. But makes it clear. This will not fund any millions of dollars to restore rails. I remain available for any further budgeting assistance Mendocino Railway may require.
Listen to Pinoli ‘s attached interview. He states that owning a railroad offers the right to land grab under the protection of eminent domain.
Geopolitics beyond the County line do not seem to be of interest; may I make a suggestion?
The railway assures Famine Hedge, as a robust link with the national railway network via Fairfield. Those following current rogue’s gallery of well-armed dictators are familiar with their explicit native language speeches targeting American food supply and distribution, using Cyberwarfare and Electro Magnetic pulse to disable solid state controls on communications, Financial transactions, Transport & utilities. Chinese strategic abilities to disable satellites is well known in military think tanks.
We suffered significant loss with recent passing of Dr. Peter Vincent Pry; parties interested in the need for railway mode in near term challenges can reference Dr. Pry’s papers, along with Richard Clarke book “Cyberwarfare” and recent warnings from Victor Davis Hansen and Anthony Cordesman, respectively.
It is downright unfortunate railroad operators like Mr. Pinoli seem to be the least well informed on strategic value of the railway mode going into a very dangerous period of Geopolitical competition with foreign adversaries with little regard for human life. S.M.A.R.T. governing board is likewise sadly unable to get their heads on straight to accomplish a simple repair on the Healdsburg Bridge bottleneck. Out in the real world, boys & girls, steel bridge rehab is effected by replacing rivets with high strength bolts, and placing stiffener plates over the joints where the new bolts are installed.
Healdsburg bridge rail extension is integral with multiple rail improvements up & down the line, and one questions rail management competence enroute, whether agency like S.M.A.R.T. or operator like Mendocino Rail Co. respective abilities to carry on strategic thinking… A railway is a TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM, not a cow for contractors and shareholders!
THE SKUNK TRAIN IS LITERALLY IN MY BACK YARD. THEY DISRUPT THE TRANQUILITY OF THIS TOWN 4-5 TIMES A DAY BLOWING THEIR DAMNED HORN IN THE STATION. HOW MANY TIMES A DAY WOULD THIS NEW LINE COME AND GO!? HOW MANY ILLEGAL INVADERS WOULD FIND A NEW MEANS OF UNFETTERED TRANSPORTATION BEING HUMAN TRAFFICKED NORTH. TRAINS ARE NATURALLY DIRTY. I DON’T WANT THIS IN MY LIVING ROOM. I WANT THE SKUNK TRAIN SHUT DOWN. LORD HELP OUR SMALL COUNTRY TOWN. GO HOME. ALL OF YOU!