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Local News

Great Redwood Trail extension south of Ukiah paused

A section of railroad track with weeds and trees.

A plan to build a segment of the trail alongside the track instead of on top is "on ice" as the city waits for authorization to build the trail on top of the track.

A plan to build a segment of the Great Redwood Trail south of Ukiah is “on ice” for the time being, providing a reprieve for the more than forty trees that were candidates for removal in a new design. The latest phase of the trail will not go out to bid for this year’s construction season.

The original plan was to build the trail on top of the track, or ballast, which is called railbanking. But the Surface Transportation Board has not authorized railbanking for the southern portion of the track. The City of Ukiah received a grant in 2021 to build and design a section of trail on top of the track to extend to a community garden south of Norgard Lane.

But without authorization to railbank, the city spent close to half a million dollars on plans for an alternate trail alongside the track, which called for the removal of more than forty valley oaks, some of them more than forty inches diameter at breast height. The new design was also much shorter and more expensive.

Susan Knopf was among the community members who objected at a Ukiah City Council meeting this month, saying, “The extension of the Great Redwood Trail is being funded by a greening grant. I was shocked to hear that it involved cutting down a lot of trees. It absolutely doesn’t make sense to me.”

Two council members and several members of the public were also unhappy that the item about the Great Redwood Trail had been on the consent calendar, arguing that one of the consistent promises about the project has been that there will be a rigorous public process.

On Thursday afternoon, Knopf was one of the people who met with city staff and learned that earlier that morning, the granting agency and the Great Redwood Trail Agency had agreed to allow a pause on the next phase of developing the trail.

Tim Eriksen, Director of Public Works and City Engineer for the City of Ukiah, spoke with us that afternoon about the upshot of the morning meeting with the agencies. “Taking into account the concerned citizens and some issues that the city themselves have been concerned with,” he said, “We asked them if they were all okay with changing our timeline a little bit and putting the project on hold for this year. There won’t be construction of the Great Redwood Trail Phase 4 this year, as we hope that railbanking comes and we can actually put the project up where it was originally intended and that’s up on top of the ballast where the rails are right now.”

Linda Sanders is a former City Planning Commissioner. She was dismayed that the plans by engineering consultant GHD were in the consent calendar earlier this month. She also spoke with us about the meeting with city staff on Thursday afternoon.

Sanders started with her positive impressions, saying that she liked the idea of waiting to railbank, rather than carving a new trail alongside the track, which would have called for cutting down indigenous trees. “I liked that they agreed that anything else that comes back related to the Rail Trail will receive a public hearing at a City Council meeting, rather than being consent calendared,” she added. “On the negative side, I’m just not real convinced that the railbanking is going to be something that we’ll see right away. Anything to do with that rail system has been fraught with problems.”

Eriksen said the staff at the California Coastal Conservancy, which runs the Great Redwood Trail Agency, has intimated that that might not be the case in the near future. However, the state agency cannot make promises on behalf of the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads. “They feel pretty confident that the railbanking is going to happen fairly soon,” he said. “So we’re just going off of their confidence…if we don’t get that railbanking nod by the fall, I think it’s appropriate for city staff to bring this back to City Council with a recommendation of where we go from here. I don’t know what that will be at this time, but that will be our timeline.”

Neil Davis, the Director of Community Services for the City of Ukiah, laid out the possible scenarios. He hopes that the federal Surface Transportation Board will make its decision in the next year. “If the determination is for railbanking, we’ll be able to move pretty quickly,” he declared. But if the decision is against railbanking, he expects that, “We probably won’t be able to railbank until there’s a change in that Surface Transportation Board,” which he predicts could take years or even decades. He encouraged supporters of the trail to let their elected representatives know what they want.

Sanders said that when the item comes back before the City Council, she would be satisfied, “If it’s a presentation for the layperson. It would be great if there were notifications in the papers, too. Then I would be happy.”

There will be an update on the status of the southern section of the Great Redwood Trail during open session at this week’s Ukiah City Council meeting on Wednesday evening.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.