North Coast trail plan complicated by US rail ruling

A ruling by federal regulators has put a damper on plans to turn 300 miles of rail line from Humboldt County to Marin County into the Great Redwood Trail.

The Surface Transportation Board issued a decision Tuesday that it will not prioritize trail use and, in so doing, cast aside the established process for considering offers from the North Coast Railroad Co. and the Mendocino Railway to acquire or subsidize rail service along either the entire corridor or a stretch of the line.

The ruling said an offer of financial assistance to acquire or subsidize rail lines “should take priority over a trail use proposal because of the strong congressional intent to preserve rail service wherever possible.”

Mike Hart, chief executive officer and founder of Mendocino Railway’s parent company, Sierra Energy, said his intention is to ensure the rail line in Mendocino County, from about the Willits area going south, remains connected to the interstate rail network. He said he has no interest in operating the line north of Willits heading into Humboldt County.

“It’s a mud glacier,” Hart said.

Maintaining the rail line along the Eel River is financially infeasible because of landslides and other risks, but the North Coast Railroad Co. wants to take over that portion of the line. Some evidence suggests it might seek to transport coal from other states for shipment to Asia.

US Rep. Jared Huffman and state Sen. Mike McGuire, who has been leading the charge for the Great Redwood Trail at the state level, issued statements saying they weren’t surprised by the decision, but that they are taking steps to ensure the “toxic coal train” doesn’t become a reality on the North Coast.

Huffman recently questioned the STB chair and board about the kind of factors they would consider when examining the offer presented by “the shadowy coal train LLC” and “got some helpful assurances in response.”

“Community input, transparency and reaching our climate goals are all crucial factors when considering the future of rail lines,” said Huffman, a Democrat who lives in San Rafael. “The toxic coal train is not only completely infeasible, but it would be a disaster for the North Coast.”

McGuire is also working on passing Senate Bill 307, which would block state funding that would go toward advancing the North Coast Railroad Co.’s painstaking plans. He said the “ruling forces the toxic coal train and Mendocino Railroad to come out of the shadows and defend their dangerous proposals.”

“Let’s be clear. There is simply no chance that any freight operation is possible or feasible along this corridor,” said McGuire, a Democrat who lives in Healdsburg. “The failed North Coast Railroad Authority tried desperately to attract freight rail shippers for the last 30 years and now they are out of business. They failed miserably.”

“And to add insult to injury, rehabilitating the rail line up to modern standards will cost multiple billions at this point and these companies will most likely be asking taxpayers to foot the bill,” he said. “It ain’t gonna happen.”

The ruling on Tuesday also included a finding that the board doesn’t have jurisdiction over a stretch of rail line extending from north of Arcata to just east of Blue Lake because it was already abandoned and taken out of the interstate rail network in the 1980s.

The city of Arcata is working on developing 3.5 miles of trail along the railroad corridor. The county and Caltrans have also been working on the idea of ​​a trail between Blue Lake and Glendale, and using the rail corridor for those projects has now become more complicated, said Hank Seemann, a county environmental official.

“The vision was to go all the way to Blue Lake but that connection is now more complicated,” Seemann said. “Several of those parcels had easements and STB said those can’t be railbanked because that branch line was already abandoned.”

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