MENDOCINO Co, CA, 3/11/23 — While the Great Redwood Trail Agency (GRTA) is “full steam ahead” (in the words of State Senator Mike McGuire) toward executing the vision of a 320-mile walking and biking path along former railroad lines from San Francisco to Humboldt Bay, the journey there will impact adjacent communities, property owners, and associated companies. As of the GRTA’s latest filing, this includes the Skunk Train operator Mendocino Railway.
After securing railbanking of the rail line running north from Willits up to Humboldt Bay in 2022 — meaning the line will no longer be used for rail and can be paved over into trail — the GRTA, formerly known as the North Coast Rail Authority and now a trail management agency, filed at the end of February for adverse abandonment of Mendocino Railway’s line from Fort Bragg to Willits. The petition, to be adjudicated by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) which regulates federal railroad operations, comes as the GRTA now seeks to railbank the GRTA line from Willits to Cloverdale.
The trail won’t actually run between Fort Bragg and Willits — but Willits provides Mendocino Railway’s only connection to the interstate rail network, which means complex rail regulations come into play in trying to railbank that connected portion of the GRTA’s line.
“The State of California was very clear in its mandate that we are to build the trail from Cloverdale to Humboldt Bay, and this is the next step in that process,” GRTA Interim Executive Director Karyn Gear said in a news release from the agency.
Filing for adverse abandonment is a complex process, involving weighing the needs and benefits of keeping or discontinuing rail on a given line; the GRTA has asked for numerous waivers and exemptions within its filing. This portion of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad/GRTA line remains subject to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) embargo since 1998, when it was shut down due to extensive infrastructure damage and poor maintenance. The GRTA argues that there is no realistic prospect for its future freight use — nor has there been for 20 years.
“However, GRTA cannot seek abandonment of this remaining portion of the GRTA Line and railbank it in accordance with the Act based on STB precedent if it is attached to the MR in Willits; otherwise, it would leave the Line stranded from the interstate network,” GRTA Attorney Daniel R. Elliott wrote. “Therefore, GRTA cannot satisfy its statutory mandate to railbank the GRTA Line and continue with its plans to develop the Trail in the most efficient and effective manner until this matter is resolved.”
Further, Mendocino Railway’s line is currently unusable end-to-end due to a collapse at Tunnel 1, a little over three miles east of Fort Bragg. In prior conversations, President Robert Pinoli expressed to The Mendocino Voice that the railroad would one day like to revive service, though it currently runs its Skunk Train tourist operations on just a small portion of line.
“What I don’t think people realize is the amount of work that has been done with respect to that hillside and the tunnel since its closure in 2015,” Pinoli said. “We’ve spent millions of dollars, literally, on the rebuilding of the hillside.” But when the tunnel could actually reopen is “the multimillion dollar question,” he said.
Mendocino Railway did not respond to The Voice’s request for comment on the adverse abandonment filing by the time of publication.
The GRTA also drew parallels between its adverse abandonment filing and the current litigation between the City of Fort Bragg and Mendocino Railway over the railway’s purchase by eminent domain of the former Georgia Pacific mill site in Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg disputes Mendocino Railway’s claim that it is a public utility and so has the right to exercise eminent domain over the substantial coastal property; The California Coastal Commission has joined Fort Bragg in the lawsuit, which is set to begin trial in June.
“A decision granting an adverse abandonment would serve the public interest by settling these questions of whether MR’s actions in attempting to take private property via eminent domain and avoid applicable state law in its real estate development activities are proper on the basis of preemption under 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b) and California law regarding railroad use of eminent domain, or, as GRTA asserts, abuses of their status as a rail carrier granted by STB,” Elliott wrote in the GRTA petition.
Down south, Sonoma Marin Area-Rail Transit (SMART) has filed to acquire and operate the adjoining 87.65-mile portion of the rail corridor extending through Sonoma and Marin counties, preserving these tracks for SMART’s rail use.
“SMART will be responsible for rail-with-trail development for the southern segment of the Trail,” Elliott wrote.
It’s that filing, in part, that makes Redwood Valley rancher Adam Gaska concerned about railbanking southern Mendocino County’s portion of the line. He created a petition in March, currently at 91 signatures, to stop railbanking of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, primarily over hopes that rail could one day be revived on the line — but not if it’s turned into a trail.
“I keep on getting told how amazing it is, and it’s really starting to irritate me that they won’t really engage meaningfully,” he told The Mendocino Voice of his questions for the GRTA. The agency is in the midst of its information-gathering stage, in which it continues to seek public input before developing recommendations for trail guidelines and priorities.
Gaska would favor rail-with-trail for this portion of the line. But because he farms Heart Arrow Ranch, which is bisected by the trail, he also has concerns about the volume of people moving through the property, given high foot-traffic estimates from the GRTA.
“I don’t think we can fight the walking trail entirely,” he said. “And so if we are going to reopen it, I don’t want it to be just for walking. I want it to also include at least the option in the future for the rail.”
Read the GRTA’s full petition for adverse abandonment here:GRTAPetition