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.”