Eureka-Arcata trail advocates may soon have a new ally in Caltrans, after the Coastal Commission dealt a blow to Caltrans’ safety corridor plans in a report the commission released at the end of June.
Caltrans’ preferred plan (it has come up with six alternatives) included an interchange at Indianola Cutoff, a signal at northbound Airport Road and closure of other median crossings on the highway. The project requires Coastal Commission review.
In the report, Coastal Commission staff recommended against the project, saying Caltrans did not prepare sufficient mitigation for 10 acres of wetlands that would be filled by the Indianola Interchange.
The plan doesn’t address statewide coastal trail goals either, according to the report, and could make bicycling on the corridor more dangerous as speeds are expected to increase with the development of an overpass. “A coastal trail may eventually be implemented on the parallel rail line corridor, but the implementation and timing of such an alternative trail remains speculative,” the report reads. The report calls for three provisions to Caltrans’ plan:
1. Replace the Indianola interchange with a traffic signal, in a manner minimizing wetland impacts to the degree possible.
2. Provide for a separated bicycle/pedestrian corridor on one or both sides of the highway along the entire corridor.
3. Provide wetland mitigations.
The report was scheduled to go before the Coastal Commission in Ventura on Wednesday, but North Coast District Manager Bob Merrill explained that a decision on the report was postponed as a “paper exercise.”
Local interest groups and citizens asked for Caltrans to wait for a local coastal commission hearing to allow more local input, Merrill said, but Caltrans wanted it to be scheduled within the original time frame so a Coastal Commission staff report would be generated. With the report in hand, Caltrans agreed to postpone the hearing until September.
Bill Kier, a former director of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), said the Coastal Commission’s report could entice Caltrans to push for a trail on the existing rail corridor between Eureka and Arcata. “I’m confident that Caltrans can find funds with which to become a major partner in a bay trail development to a far greater extent than any participation that they’ve alluded to,” Kier said.
Converting the bay’s rails to a trail would conflict with the desires of the NCRA’s sole contractor, Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which Kier said doesn’t want to see lines tampered with, even in the defunct northern end of the line. But NCRA this week unanimously approved a salmon restoration project east of Laytonville on Woodman Creek that calls for the removal of 200 feet of NCRA line. That decision indicates the NCRA may be more willing to deviate from its trail policy, which doesn’t allow the replacement of rails with trails.
“There are simply times when the public good requires that we encroach upon the rail corridor more than the previous policies would permit,” Kier said.
Humboldt Baykeeper Policy Director Jen Kalt said trail or not, Caltrans was going to have trouble getting past the Coastal Commission with the proposed interchange. “The Coastal Act is the Coastal Act.”