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photo credit: Credit: Caltrans
The future of close to 200 miles of derelict railroad tracks and right-of-way stretching from Sonoma County to Arcata is inching into view. 
A decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board last week clears the way for a final ruling. No trains have plied the tracks between Willits and Arcata for a few decades. They're remnants of what was once the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. The southernmost segment has been re-invigorated into SMART.
State and local officials seek to build a 175-mile hiking trail next to the abandoned tracks, reserving the rights to restore the line if it ever becomes economically viable. Restoration would require billions in repairs, according to a state study.
That's an expense hard to justify. A landslide washed away track in the Eel River canyon a quarter century ago.
Meanwhile, several entities are seeking restoration, including a group hoping to export Wyoming and Utah coal through Eureka, likely to Asia. Similar proposals at other west coast ports, including Oakland and Portland, were shot down.
The federal board's action, mainly dealing with ancillary issues, also started a clock on the alternate proposals. Those seeking to revive the line must file what's called an "Offer of Financial Assistance" or OFA--showing they have the funds for repairs by the end of May.
Caryl Hart is chair of the Great Redwood Trail Agency, the quasi-state entity behind the trail effort. She said a credible financial offer would doom the recreational trail.
"Just to be clear, an OFA would result in the taking of the right-of-way and the rail line, from the public agency and put it in private hands, so it's a huge threat. It would be the end of the road, for the trail."
Nevertheless, Hart is fairly confident the bar is simply too high.
"They have to show that they have the ability to repair these lines. You're talking literally billions of dollars , then they also have to show that they have the money to operate it and that they have goods that need to be transported by rail, that there's a demand for use of that rail line," she said.
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