The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) was created by the State Legislature in 1989 to ensure the continuation of rail service in north western California. NCRA obtained ownership and/or right-of way to 316 miles of rail corridor extending from the national rail interchange at Lombard, south of Napa, to Humboldt Bay in the north.
NCRA was created without a dedicated source of funding but with considerable deferred maintenance and environmental cleanup issues. NCRA operated from 1992 until 1998 when the line was shut down by FRA Emergency Order 21. Freight service resumed in July, 2011 on the southern 62 miles of the line from Lombard to Windsor.
NCRA is governed by a nine member board of directors. The Board of Supervisors of the counties of Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt each appoint two directors. The ninth director is appointed by the city/mayor selection committee of one of the counties.
The Rail Corridor
NCRA is currently responsible for oversight and maintenance of 280 miles of rail corridor from Healdsburg north to the Port of Humboldt Bay. The northern portion of the line is known as the Eel River Division and the southern portion is known as the Russian River Division. SMART is now responsible for maintenance on their operational segment, a distance of approximately 36 miles of the shared right of way.
NCRA currently has two sources of consistent revenue: lease of rolling stock and revenue from leases, licenses and encroachment permits. In addition, periodic revenue results from the sale of property, equipment or one-time long term lease arrangements. Annual property revenues collected by the NCRA range from $300,000 to $500,000.
Recent property sales proceeds have been dedicated to site development in an effort to create an additional source of long-term funding through commercial leases once property improvements are completed. The most recent example is sale of a 4.1 acre portion of the Ukiah Depot property to the Judicial Council of California for construction of a new Mendocino County Courthouse.
NCRA's liabilities include the outstanding RRIF loan, the loan from NWP Company, and outstanding amounts due to contract service providers for legal and engineering services.
In 2005 and 2007 NCRA sought assistance from the State legislature to allow NCRA to utilize State funds that were no longer required for repayment of a federal loan, and instead use the funds to address health and safety issues. In both 2005 and 2007 the legislature approved the requested legislation, but the bills were vetoed by the Governor.
NCRA was created without a dedicated source of funding but with considerable deferred maintenance and environmental cleanup issues. A lack of stable agency funding has hindered NCRA's ability to respond to maintenance and emergency issues, secure payment for use of NCRA property and apply for and secure grants.
NCRA has also been hindered by the historic choice to construct a rail line through the Eel River canyon, one of the most geologically unstable areas in the world. For example, the day the ceremonial spike was driven at Cain Rock in 1914, completing construction of the line from Willits to Eureka, a landslide prevented the inaugural train from completing the trip to Eureka. NCRA commenced operations in 1992 but was plagued from the start by line closures due to storm damage and slides in the Eel River canyon, with some closures lasting for months at a time. The entire line was shut down in 1998 by FRA Emergency Order 21 ("E021").
NCRA, as steward of a 316-mile railroad line, is required to coordinate with the following regulatory or trustee agencies involved in coordination, permitting and other approvals:
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Federal Railway Administration (FRA)
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW)
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
United States Forest Service (USFS)
United States Coast Guard (USCG)
California Transportation Commission
Office of Emergency Services
California Department of Transportation (Caltrans Districts 1 and 4)
California Department of Fish & Game (DFG)
Regional Water Quality Control Boards - North Coast and San Francisco Bay Regions
Department of Toxic Substance Control
State Historic preservation Office
State Lands Commission
California Coastal Commission
California Public Utilities Commission
San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC)
15 Cities along the railroad right-of-way
6 Counties along the railroad right of way
Regional transportation planning agencies
Numerous private property owners encroaching on and neighboring the rail line
NCRA, with strong support from Humboldt County, led an effort that resulted in a broad based community consensus in the Humboldt Bay area regarding development of rails with trails. In accordance with NCRA's adopted rails with trails guidelines, multi-use trail projects have been constructed within the NCRA right of way in Healdsburg, Ukiah, Arcata, Eureka and Humboldt County. All of these trails have been intentionally designed to work in concert with rail service.
NWP Co., in conjunction with NCRA, has identified portions of the line where the return of freight service is economically feasible. NWP Co. is preparing a separate business plan which is expected to address the viability of freight rail in the following areas:
Several companies have expressed interest in shipping with NWP Co. on the Russian River Division north of Windsor, including Mendocino Redwood Company, Mendocino Forest Products, Reuser, Inc., All Coast Forest Products, Redwood Empire Forest Products and Syar Industries.
From South Fork to Eureka, Arcata, and Samoa, along with a tourist train. Shippers that have expressed interest include Humboldt Redwood Company, gravel operators and contractors, many of whom work with both the County and CalTrans, including Eureka Ready Mix, Mercer Fraser, Thomas R. Bess Inc. and Jack Noble.
The remainder of the rail line, from Willits to South Fork, including the Eel River Canyon, is less suitable for freight rail traffic. The area has a long history of landslides, flooding and heavy maintenance requirements that make it prohibitively expensive to maintain as a rail corridor. Estimates for the restoration of rail service through the Eel River canyon start at $600 million. There is currently no economic justification for making that kind of investment.
Phase 1 - Windsor to Cloverdale
The portion of the rail line from Windsor (MP 62.9) to Cloverdale (MP 85.2) is currently planned by SMART for reconstruction to Class 4 with all new rail and track section using concrete ties. SMART also will be completing significant bridge and other infrastructure improvements to allow for 69 mile per hour passenger service. SMART is expected to complete the reconstruction of this portion of the rail line in 2021.
Phase 2 - Cloverdale to Ukiah
North of Cloverdale to Ukiah, outside the limits of the future SMART passenger service, the track rehabilitation is based on repairs to a level of Class 3 for freight with speeds up to 45mph. The repair cost includes $12 million in estimated repairs for the tunnel.
Repairs for the 5.3 mile Ukiah to Redwood Valley phase include bridge repairs, culvert cleaning and replacements, public crossing and signal repairs, private crossing modifications and track Upgrades for an estimated total of $5.1 million.
Repairs in this 21.5 mile phase consist of culvert cleaning and replacement, bridge repairs, drainage repairs to address geotechnical issues, public crossing improvements, private crossing modifications and track improvements estimated to total $19.2 million.
Phase 5 – South Fork to Eureka Rehabilitation
This 46.5 mile section is estimated to cost $47 million and includes vegetation clearing, upgrading of track, culvert cleaning and replacement, replacement of the Van Duzen bridge steel spans, timber bridge repairs, repairs to three tunnels and crossing signal and surface repairs and replacements.
Phase 6 - North Humboldt Bay Rail Corridor
Repairs for this 16.5 mile phase include track upgrades, brush cutting and vegetation removal embankment repairs, culvert repairs and cleaning, timber bridge repairs, crossing and signal repairs and upgrades for a total estimated $15 million.
NCRA is pursuing a course of action to accomplish the following:
Railbank a 120 mile portion of the right of way from Willits to South Fork, including the entire Eel River Canyon. Receive one time funding in exchange for railbanking to be used to retire debt.
Obtain dedicated funding to maintain necessary staffing and resources to manage the maintenance of those portions of the line that do not have freight service and are not yet railbanked.
Work toward obtaining grant and private funding to complete phased improvements to restore freight service from Cloverdale to Willits and establish a freight belt line and tourist train around Humboldt Bay.
Next move? Stay tuned.