Agency moves on Skunk Train
The Great Redwood Trail Agency asked the Surface Transportation Board for an "adverse abandonment" of the Mendocino Railway line between Willits and Fort Bragg. The Agency thinks that if its application is approved, the Skunk Train would no longer be under STB jurisdiction, and would no longer have grounds for eminent domain claims.
The Great Redwood Trail Agency, or GRTA, filed a petition this week with the Surface Transportation Board, asking for an adverse abandonment of about 40 miles of track between Fort Bragg and Willits. It’s a procedural step in seeking authorization to railbank the southern portion of the line, which in turn is required in order to build the trail on top of the track, or ballast.
Supporters anticipate economic and environmental benefits of the trail, but skeptics question the feasibility of building and maintaining it. Mendocino Railway, also known as the Skunk Train, which owns that section of the track, is loath to give up the last hope of access to the national rail system. And a member of the Redwood Valley Municipal Advisory Council has started circulating a petition against railbanking the track, saying his questions haven’t been answered.
Caryl Hart is a member of the California Coastal Commission and chair of the GRTA. She explained the significance of this week’s filing.
“We’re not authorized to move forward so long as the Skunk Train is connected to our line in Willits,” she said. “Because railbanking is seen as a severance of the line. And that is not allowed, if you have two actual railroads operating. GIven that our line has been embargoed, which means taken out of active rail use for over 25 years; given that the Skunk Train’s tourist railway really operates from Fort Bragg to a tunnel collapse, and to some extent from Willits to the tunnel collapse…there is no interstate rail on the Skunk Trail line. There’s just been no freight whatsoever on the Skunk Train line that would justify continued Surface Transportation Board oversight.” The filing states that, “If an adverse abandonment is granted, the decision removes the agency’s jurisdiction, enabling the state or others to pursue other legal remedies or clarifying STB jurisdictional issues against the incumbent carrier, if necessary.”
Perhaps more significantly for several pending eminent domain cases involving the company, the filing declares that Mendocino Railway has “abused its status as a rail carrier subject to STB jurisdiction in several ways…It has asserted its status as a freight carrier in order to evade applicable state law, asserting that state and local government entities cannot regulate its commercial developments on the basis of the status…A decision granting an adverse abandonment would serve the public interest by settling these questions of whether MR’s actions in attempting to take private property via eminent domain and avoid applicable state law in its real estate development activities are proper” under the law “regarding railroad use of eminent domain.”
Robert Pinoli, president of the Skunk Train, wrote in an email that, “Permanently cutting off all of California’s North Coast from the rest of the nation’s railroad network is shortsighted and will have negative long-term consequences.” In October, the Surface Transportation Board found that the Skunk Train was not financially equipped to take over thirteen miles of track in the northern portion of the future trail. The GRTA estimates that it would cost $100,000,000 to bring the southern portion back into a condition that would make it possible to transport freight. But Pinoli wrote that, “GRTA's decision to destroy the rail (to the point that it seems more their goal than actually building a trail) will have significant long-term consequences that will haunt the region and its residents for decades or even centuries to come.” He offered his company’s services to operate the freight railroad and use a full-time rail crew to build a trail alongside the tracks, which he believes would have environmental benefits by taking vehicles off the road.
Meanwhile, the City of Ukiah has paused in its plans to build a section of trail next to the track on the south end of town, as the city awaits the decision on railbanking. A proposed design called for the removal of dozens of valley oaks, which met with stiff resistance from community members.
Hart is glad the city is waiting for a chance to build the trail on top of the track. And she doesn’t believe there are significant environmental benefits to the train service. “A big part of this is to restore, for example, the Eel River canyon, which is currently littered with refuse and toxins from the years and years of rail operations,” she said. “So the idea that a bunch of trees would be cut down so they can put the trail next to the rail line because railbanking has not occurred yet, is not something that I as the chair of the board would be in favor of on any level. I’m really glad they put a hold on that.”
Adam Gaska, who’s a member of the Redwood Valley Municipal Advisory Council, is glad for the pause, too, though he supports keeping the option of running trains on the track. He felt the city of Ukiah stepped “out of its lane” last summer, when it started seeking approval for a grant to build the trail north to Redwood Valley. Yesterday, he launched a change.org petition called Don’t Railbank the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.
“In theory, it’s not necessarily a bad idea,” he conceded, of the Great Redwood Trail. “But for me personally, and I think for a lot of people, it’s not necessarily what our priorities should be.” He listed water issues, economic problems due to inflation, the lack of affordable housing, and “all these other things that would be on my shopping list first, before spending billions of dollars on this trail that has no mechanism to fund it, at least after it’s built.”
The community is also traumatized by fire, though Hart noted that the most devastating fires have been caused by electrical equipment, sparking mufflers from cars, and motorists throwing cigarettes out the window. “There really is no link between legal trail use, or legal park use, and forest fires,” she declared.
Gaska also complained about a lack of communication with landowners on the southern portion, but Hart said that planning and outreach efforts have been focused on the northern portion, which has received authorization to railbank. She noted reports that trails are an economic boon to communities, but Gaska remains skeptical about an amenity that would make the countryside where he lives more accessible.
“Transients are another huge issue,” he said. “We’ve seen what it’s like in Ukiah, and it’s not getting any better. And it even spills out into Redwood Valley. We’ve had transients trying to camp out at the base of our driveway, right off of 101. It’s just going to put all those issues much closer to our stuff, basically, and our animals, and our vineyards, and our livelihood. We’re basically being asked to sacrifice a lot, and we’re not really being offered anything in return. Regarding the possibility of tourism, he opined that, “Even if we did want to build cabins or something like that, I don’t even know how we would get permits from the county.”
Some landowners also worry that trail infrastructure could cut off their animals’ access to water and shade. Hart said this won’t be the first time that parks have accommodated both visitors and livestock, and promised that once her agency gets involved with building the trail, there will be extensive community involvement.
“This is just going to be such an amazing future for all of us who live in this area,” she promised. “It’s just going to be such a great experience. I’m super excited about it.”
Gaska suspects that he’s not the only one who feels otherwise, but, “Maybe I’m wrong,” he allowed. “Maybe a lot of people do support it, and if enough people do and I’m in the minority, then it’s fine. I’ll just be quiet, and go do something else.”