Report finds small-scale rail achievable in Humboldt County but costly

Sen. Mike McGuire focused on trail plans

Hikers look at one of several spots where the earth has slipped out from below the long-abandoned railroad tracks north of Scotia on Saturday. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard file)
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A “timber heritage” group looking to build small-scale rail projects in Humboldt County is touting a new feasibility study that finds it would be a costly but doable task, though a state senator is intent on converting the North Coast’s rail pathways to an enormous pedestrian and cycling trail.

The study, conducted by Pennsylvania-based Stone Consulting, concludes that existing rail infrastructure in northern Humboldt County needs extensive restoration. But when finished, the study’s creator believes small rail initiatives, such as speeder cars or a demonstration project, would be well within the community’s capacity.

“They have a wonderful collection of equipment out there,” said Randy Gustafson about the Timber Heritage Association, the group that hired Stone Consulting to complete the study. “It’s a big leg up.”

The study identifies a host of obstacles, including large infrastructure fixes. A number of bridges and gulches need rehabilitation. And the study recommends keeping aims small over the short-term, as passenger-train projects would be subject to “daunting” Federal Railroad Administration regulations.

While there’s a lot of work to do, Gustafson said he was impressed by the Timber Heritage Association’s success in vastly restoring a Samoa Peninsula site that the organization hopes to turn into a historical “rail museum” one day.

The properties once sat in disrepair, Gustafson said, but the volunteer-based organization turned them around with extensive renovation.

“All our volunteers are passionate about this,” said Larry Henderson of the Timber Heritage Association. “Ideally, we want to show people the history of rail, and even have them ride through different time periods in passenger cars.”

Many bridges and sloughs on the North Coast’s rail right-of-way need structural improvements, including a bridge above Jacoby Creek. (Stone Consulting Group)

Gustafson will present the study next week to the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group, a prominent collective of residents advocating for Humboldt Bay improvements. Several members of the group are passionate about bringing back Humboldt County’s depleted rail industry.

But their plans, even the small ones, conflict with future projects backed by legislative powers. Those projects include the Great Redwood Trail, an ambitious plan to build a 320-mile pedestrian and cycling path between the North Coast and San Francisco Bay Area.

Much of the rail right-of-way land in Humboldt County would be part of the major trailway, a cornerstone project of North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire’s time in office.

Meanwhile, the rail right-of-way is owned by the North Coast Rail Authority (or NCRA), an organization in poor financial shape.

Richard Marks, who sits on the authority’s board of directors, said he has heard of future rail plans for some time but doesn’t believe the money will be there to make the work happen, especially given the NCRA’s transition to a trail-focused initiative.

“During an NCRA meeting in Healdsburg, I was brought to task by Mr. McGuire’s office for even announcing the feasibility study,” Marks said.

Reached Thursday, McGuire said his office wouldn’t have the ultimate decision on the NCRA’s rail right-of-way, but noted the organization is winding down after years of being a “complete disaster.” McGuire did say non-passenger trains, like speeder cars, will be compatible with the future Great Redwood Trail.

“But being candid, freight will never come back to the Eel River canyon in Humboldt County,” McGuire said. “It’s not viable. Right now, where I’m focused is the Great Redwood Trail.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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