Eel River group wants NCRA's tracks for trails
(The Ukiah Daily Journal, 1/18/11)
"A grass-roots effort is under way to rip out the rails and ties along the North Coast Railroad Authority corridor from Willits north to Humboldt Bay, and convert the corridor to a non-motorized trail." The founder of the Eel River Trails Association said one of four options "is to petition federal authorities to find the railway abandoned, beginning a 20-day period in which a predetermined agency could step up and ask to preserve the right-of-way for California -- possibly the Bureau of Land Management, among other agencies."
By TIFFANY REVELLE The Daily Journal 01/18/2011
A grass-roots effort is under way to rip out the rails and ties along the North Coast Railroad Authority corridor from Willits north to Humboldt Bay, and convert the corridor to a non-motorized trail. The process is called "rail banking," and has been done on more than about 19,000 miles of national railroad, contends Chris Weston, founder of the Eel River Trails Association, which is spearheading the effort. "This is one of the unusual cases where Northern California is behind the curve," Weston said. He argues that insisting the corridor should be used for a freight line isn't "intellectually honest," since efforts to restore the rail have been slow since the NCRA began its effort in the '80s after flooding debilitated the railway in 1967. He cites mounting rubble in one of the corridor's tunnels, geological unsoundness and lack of funding as reasons the NCRA's efforts aren't feasible. Rail banking the corridor would leave open the possibility that rail service could be restored when funding is available, Weston noted.
In the meantime, the Eel River Trails Association envisions a walking, hiking, biking and horseback riding trail, possibly with coffee shops, restrooms, horse stables, and a credit-card-like system where users fund the upkeep and swipe a card at intermediate points to let authorities know where they are.
In the roughly month's time the group has existed, it's gathered more than 5,000 signatures on a petition to convert the rail corridor to a trail, according to Weston. He said most of the signatures come from residents north of Mendocino County's portion of the approximately 150-mile section of the NCRA corridor in question, but include "hundreds" of Willits signatures. But NCRA authorities contend those signatures may be irrelevant. "Five thousand signatures is interesting," said NCRA board member Hal Wagenette of Willits, the former Mendocino County supervisor who was appointed to the authority's board of directors by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. "It's the larger interest that must be served." The NCRA is under a state mandate to restore freight service to the 314-mile rail corridor, which stretches from its interchange with the national rail system just south of Napa, north to Eureka, according to NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner. So far, 62 miles on the southern end of that corridor is restored and could be running freight by March, he said, pending the results of a safety inspection by the Federal Railroad Administration. That stretch runs from the Napa interchange east to Novato and north to Windsor.
That southern segment of the NCRA right-of-way is included in an environmental impact report that covers the corridor all the way north to Willits, where the NCRA plans to restore freight service next, according to Stogner. He expects the roughly $3 million EIR will be certified in the next few months. North of Willits, however, the future is uncertain. "Three things need to happen before we can make a decision on that," Stogner said. The contractor that will operate the trains on the railway, Northwestern Pacific Company, needs to first write a business plan that includes freight volumes sufficient to justify the cost of repairing and maintaining the rail line north of Willits. "That (cost) could be significant, because the geology of the area is very difficult; it's prone to land slides," Stogner said, referring to the Island Mountain area along the Eel River corridor.
Second, the company needs to identify funds for the project; and third, the NCRA needs to pay for another EIR covering that segment of the railway, according to Stogner. "That has to occur before we can do anything north of Willits," he said. "Therein lie many challenges." Those decisions could be 10 years away from now, according to Stogner. In the meantime, he says, the NCRA needs to understand the legal ramifications of rail banking and decide whether it's open to the idea.
"The policy of the NCRA is rails with trails," he said, noting the state mandate prohibits replacing rails with trails. Weston said it may not be entirely up to the NCRA, however. He named four possible options for converting the railway to a non-motorized trail. The best option, he said, is that the NCRA goes along with the idea. Weston hopes to present the idea at a March meeting of the authority's board of directors in Eureka.Stogner said Monday he hadn't received a written request to agendize the discussion. The trails group could also appeal to the state legislature, according to Weston. Another option is to petition federal authorities to find the railway abandoned, beginning a 20-day period in which a predetermined agency could step up and ask to preserve the right-of-way for California -- possibly the Bureau of Land Management, among other agencies.
The fourth option is taking the question to court, which Weston said is "conceptually possible."