The process of constructing a trail connecting Humboldt County to the San Francisco Bay Area is finally underway, though it will still be several years before the trail is fully constructed.
“We know that building the entire trail will not be quick and it’s not going to be easy,” said North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire. “It’s a monster undertaking. It has to be done carefully, not fast. It has to be done right.”
McGuire told a group of several dozen attendees at the Great Redwood Trail Town Hall at Humboldt State University on Saturday that, despite completion being years away, the project is moving forward in four critical ways over the course of the next year.
The first critical step forward McGuire talked about was railbanking the right-of-ways owned by the North Coast Railroad Authority, the now bankrupt transportation authority that operated freight trains in the area.
Railbanking was established in 1983 as an amendment to the National Trails System Act and allows railroad lines to be used as trails until rail service resumes. The intention is to preserve right-of-ways that would otherwise be lost.
“Once you lose a transportation corridor, it’s impossible to get it back,” McGuire said.
If passed, Senate Bill 356 transfers the right-of-ways south of Willits to the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District. McGuire said he is currently working on obtaining the right-of-ways for the portion of the trail that would be north of Willits.
Over the next year, both a boundary survey and a trail assessment will also be conducted as the second and third steps forward, McGuire said. The boundary survey will confirm the number of affected property owners along the trail while the trail assessment would determine the best routes.
“The easiest way to be able to build a trail is on top of the current railroad tracks within the current right-of-way,” McGuire said. “But we know this is going to be impossible in some locations.”
The trail assessment “is going to help make critical alignment decisions in the future,” McGuire said.
The fourth critical step forward is an audit of the NCRA. The biggest roadblock to building the trail up until this point was the NCRA, McGuire said. SB 1029, which was signed into law Sept. 29, requires that the NCRA be audited and begin shutting down.
The NCRA refused to accept that rail wasn’t going to return to the area, McGuire said. Now that the authority has finally accepted the reality that bringing rail back to the area isn’t financially feasible, McGuire said dissolving the authority should take a few years.
The main hurdle to dissolving the NCRA is paying off the authority’s debts, which amount to between $10 and $12 million, McGuire said.
The total length of the trail will be 280 miles and requires a major engineering analysis as well, said Kevin Wright, Marin County Parks’ government and external affairs coordinator. The area where the trail would be built includes 19 trestles, 38 bridges and 42 tunnels, the longest of which is 4,313 feet.
“That is a lot of infrastructure,” Wright said, “and we’re going to want to know what we can use and what we can’t and if not, how to get around the major costs of rebuilding that stuff.”
But Wright said there are experts in each of the communities that the trail will be passing through and their efforts will ensure finishing the trail “doesn’t have to be 40 or 50 years from now.”
In fact, portions of the trail, such as the Willits Rail-Trail, are already completed or are currently underway, Wright said.
Laura Cohen, western region director of national nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, helped the city of Willits secure the $6.2 million needed for that portion of the trail and is working closely with the counties to make the whole trail a reality.
Once completed, Cohen said the Great Redwood Trail would be the longest trail in the nation.
Wright said conservative estimates expect the trail to attract 1.2 million visitors annually and generate $10 million per year.
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.