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 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2012

Bike Trail Dreams

Quite a few years back--in November of 2000--I wrote an essay in this space about bike paths, or the multi-use trails commonly called bike paths. That examination of the pros and cons of such trails was on the occasion of the completion of our West County Regional Trail, which follows an old railroad grade out through west Sonoma County. Since then, a few more miles of trails have been added here and there around the county. All the new segments are nice, and they all contribute to an enhanced cycling environment for all of us, not to mention functioning as pleasant linear parks for all sorts of other trail users.

Now we are beginning to see the glimmerings of other bike trail proposals on the distant horizon. Three major projects are in what might be called the early, visionary stage. This is a brief look at what we could be seeing in the years ahead.

• Southeast Greenway. This one is right in the middle of the City of Santa Rosa. If you’re local to Sonoma County, you will remember when Caltrans planned to extend Hwy 12 beyond Farmers Lane, up to and through Spring Lake Park. It was a lunatic folly, this proposal to build a freeway through one of the prettiest, most unspoiled parks in the region, complete with a bridge across the park’s namesake lake. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the project was deep-sixed. But the block-wide, mile-and-a-half long easement that Caltrans acquired for the project is still there: a long, green, empty meadow through the heart of eastern Santa Rosa. Caltrans has finally declared the property to be surplus to any of its future needs.

Now a group of local citizens has been formed with the vision of turning this prime real estate into a linear park, with a paved nature trail as one of its main features. The parcel begins in the rocky, wooded uplands of the park and descends to Summerfield Road across a pretty hillside of oaks and boulders. West of Summerfield, it flattens out into a broad swath of green, with remnant orchards, creeks, and plenty of open space that might be developed into ball fields or community gardens or simply left in a semi-natural state.

The property crosses Yulupa and Franquette Avenues before ending in front of Montgomery High School, right across Hoen Avenue from Santa Rosa Creek. (This is not the busy portion of Hoen that feeds on and off Hwy 12; it’s a shorter, meandering section with low traffic counts…a different sort of road altogether.) From that point, there are tantalizing possibilities for continuing the trail along the creek to Doyle Park and onward to the Prince Memorial Greenway. The most ambitious, audacious plan for this section would be to build a fancy-pants trail right down in the deep, wooded creek canyon, off the road, burrowing underneath busy Farmers Lane (aka Hwy 12). That would be hugely expensive, but it’s the approach that was taken for the Prince Greenway, and look what an asset that has become for the local community. The less ambitious, less expensive alternative would be dedicated bike lanes along that meandering, tree-lined section of Hoen Avenue connecting to Doyle Park.

The wooded creek canyon continues beyond Doyle Park, all the way to the Prince Greenway, wandering along out of sight of any roads, behind residential and commercial properties. Whether it’s realistic to consider a public trail along this secluded stretch of creek is more than I can say. It might be feasible or it might not. It would certainly cost a mint of money and would also certainly jump-start a furious NIMBY backlash from the property owners nearby, who have had the pretty creek to themselves pretty much forever. But that’s a pie-in-the-sky wish-list item for the very long term. The more immediate prospect of developing the currently fallow highway right-of-way is much more realistic.

Of the three proposals examined here, this one is probably the most compelling and attractive as a high-profile "park" for all sorts of users. The folks who are spearheading the effort on this one have been very busy. They have a slick website that goes into extensive detail on what has been accomplished so far and what they hope will happen next. If you click on the big map on their home page (scroll down to it), you are taken to a standard Google satellite view of the site. Zoom in on the view until you get the up-close, detailed view, then wander up and down this tract of land. It’s hard not to get excited about what a beautiful park this would be and what a fabulous asset it would be for future generations. And if you ride your bike around Santa Rosa, the prospect of having this bucolic park as the site of a car-free trail for getting from the lovely Prince Greenway to the equally lovely Spring Lake Park is wonderful (as opposed to riding on the sometimes busy city streets).

• Central Sonoma Valley Trail. Cyclists know that riding between Santa Rosa and the town of Sonoma is not very bike-friendly. Too much traffic and too little in the way of shoulders on both Hwy 12 and Arnold Drive. Veteran cyclists will grit their teeth and ride it, but it’s no place for kids or novice riders or the timid. That may change someday if another bike trail can be put in place. In response to my query, Ken Tam of Sonoma County Regional Parks recently sent me this note about an interesting project...

“This is a proposed Class I bike path that parallels the Hwy 12 corridor from Sonoma Valley to the City of Santa Rosa. In 2001, the County completed a study of this trail from Verano Avenue to Agua Caliente Road. We are now proposing to extend the study area from Agua Caliente Road to Melita Road, just outside Santa Rosa. The Sonoma County Regional Parks Department will be submitting a grant application to study the feasibility of this trail alignment. If we are awarded the grant, the funds will come from the Caltrans Community Based Transportation Planning Grant. This is an annual grant program. The grant requires a 10% local match, which we have from Measure M funds.”

As noted above, Hwy 12 is the main artery down the Valley of the Moon, connecting the cities of Santa Rosa and Sonoma. It carries a heavy burden of traffic at all times. In the lower half of the valley, Arnold Drive provides an alternative to the numbered state highway, but it too carries a great deal of traffic. Caltrans added wide, smooth shoulders to a good chunk of Hwy 12 a few years back, and now it can be ridden quite comfortably and safely. Even so, the journey will inevitably be made in company with a non-stop, heavy metal river of cars and trucks whizzing by at 50 or 60 mph. However, south of the Arnold Drive junction, most of the wider shoulders disappear and things get really sketchy for cyclists. Even hardened veterans, comfortable with traffic, will avoid most of the run south of Arnold, except for the bare minimum needed to get to a few good side roads, such as Cavedale and Moon Mountain, or the nice new bike trail through Sonoma Valley Regional Park. It is definitely no place for kids or for novice riders of any age.

Several sections of Arnold Drive and Hwy 12 south of Arnold have recently received lovely new paving. However, over almost all of those sections, the pavers passed on the opportunity to add wider shoulders when they were out there doing their work. These are the only two viable roads for making the run between Santa Rosa and Sonoma. There are no alternatives, not even complicated, convoluted ones. Lawndale, Warm Springs, and Riverside offer some relief, here and there, as does the aforementioned trail through the regional park. But ultimately, you have to come back to the main roads. Nothing connects.

And speaking of connecting, it’s worth noting that the terminus of this trail at the edge of Santa Rosa--Melita Road--runs into Spring Lake Park. On the other side of Spring Lake Park is the connection to the proposed Southeast Greenway project, with its trail heading west through town, with those ultimate, pie-in-the-sky possibilities of connecting to the Prince Greenway, which, further along, connects to both the Santa Rosa Creek Trail and the Joe Rodota Trail, which connects to the West Country Regional Trail. Tie all those connections up into one long trail, and there is the theoretical possibility that, at some point in some rosy future, it might be possible to ride on a dedicated, Class I trail, all the way from Forestville in the west county into and through Sebastopol, onward into Santa Rosa, through the big city, through its pretty regional parks (using the existing trails in the parks), out the other side into the Valley of the Moon, and on down the valley to the old mission town of Sonoma. Plotting the route in Ride With GPS, I make that out to be a journey of 37 miles. Depending on how many of the trail sections eventually get built, all but a mile or two of the total would be on trails, out of the hurly-burly of motorized traffic.

So that’s the context into which this proposed path would be introduced. The county has not yet created a web page for this project, although Ken Tam promises there will be one in a few weeks. I hope so, because I want to see what their proposed trail alignment will be. It’s easy to say it will parallel Hwy 12, but the devil will be in the details…how exactly they propose to accomplish that.

When it comes to trails paralleling a busy highway, a likely comparison might be made with the section of the West County Regional Trail that parallels Hwy 116 north of Sebastopol. When that was first proposed, many years ago, it was hard to envision how it would work; how it would fit into the landscape and integrate with the busy highway and with all the side roads and driveways it crosses. But now that it’s in place, I think everyone agrees it has been well done and is a big plus for the community. (I use it frequently. It has entirely altered my options for getting around in that neck of the woods.)

Andy’s Market, a near-supermarket-sized "fruit stand" along the trail, has responded to having the trail at their front door by setting up sidewalk tables along their frontage, and now it’s a regular stop for cyclists along the path, taking a break for coffee and snacks. That’s a classic example of how a path can energize a neighborhood and enhance the community. I can easily imagine similar connections along the Hwy 12 corridor through Kenwood or Boyes Hot Springs, etc. If you build it, they will come.

• Petaluma-Sebastopol Trail. All of the not-bike-friendly comments about the Hwy 12 corridor between Santa Rosa and Sonoma can just as well apply to the Hwy 116-Stony Point corridor between Sebastopol and Petaluma. There are some side-road alternatives for portions of this run, but sooner or later, they all lead back to the main roads, which are not great for riding. The Stony Point Road section was improved some years ago with better paving and generally huge, smooth shoulders. Prior to that, it was almost impossible to ride it with any approximation of safety or comfort, even for hardcore cycling vets. Now it’s much better, but as is the case with the new shoulders on Hwy 12, this run will almost always include the constant buzz of fast traffic. As for the Hwy 116 section, leading south out of Sebastopol, the shoulders on the road come and go. Sometimes it’s not too bad; in other places, it’s pretty dreadful…again, no place for kids or for those not comfortable with traffic.

A grass-roots coalition of Sebastopol hikers and bikers has been working for some time now on changing this with a Class I bike trail that would spur south off the Joe Rodota Trail near Sebastopol, skirting the eastern edge of town across the Laguna Uplands. They originally imagined the path ending near Bloomfield Road, south of town, but when they sought feedback from the County, the response was: why not run the path all the way to Petaluma along the old, abandoned railroad grade, parallel to Stony Point? (If you know where to look, you can see the old grade in Google aerial views.)

Ken Tam again, in an e-mail to me a couple of years ago: “Our department is proposing to submit a grant application to study the feasibility of this trail alignment during the next funding cycle in 2011.” Supporters of this trail had hoped to get things moving sooner than that, but the County wanted to set the Sonoma Valley Trail project in motion first before turning its attention to this exciting goal. Now, in 2012, this project is finally getting some traction, at least at the feasibility study level. County is applying to Caltrans for a grant to fund a study of the proposed trail. The study would cost around $170,000, and Caltrans requires a 10% local match before they will even consider taking on the project. Thanks to contributions from local organizations, including a substantial grant from the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, the local match has been met. That doesn’t guarantee that Caltrans will agree to take on the study, but it’s the first step in a long process…a step in the right direction.

Sonoma County does have a webpage for this project. It doesn’t tell us much, but it does at least have a nice map which shows the line of the abandoned Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad, which is the starting point in the proposed trail alignment study. As the map shows, a great deal of the easement along the railroad line has reverted to private ownership, and there will doubtless be all sorts of struggles and obstacles along the way for this trail: reacquiring the easements or dodging around sections where that’s not possible.

I don’t know what is proposed on the Petaluma end for continuing the trail through the city outskirts and into downtown, although there are some obvious options for at least some of it. On the Sebastopol end, those local folks who made the original proposal had put together an alignment that didn’t look all that realistic to me. (They asked me to review it and I pointed out a number of things that seemed problematic. I don’t think they appreciated my points. They felt I was being overly negative and I thought their plan was overly optimistic.) Whichever alignment is eventually proposed, it won’t be a simple no-brainer. Somewhere along the line, some property owners are going to feel as if their toes are being stepped on.

But hey, don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to the path. I’m an enthusiastic supporter. It would pass within a few blocks of my home and I would use it frequently and no doubt love it. But for the project to be brought forward to a successful outcome, the initial plan needs to be good…better than the first plan I saw. Now, with the County of Sonoma and the City of Sebastopol taking over the project from those early pioneers who made the first proposal, I feel more confident that the process will be managed well.

The first leg of the trail, from a connection with the Joe Rodota Trail, across the Laguna Uplands (behind Palm Drive Hospital), looks to be fairly straightforward and non-controversial, with only a few relatively minor property issues to sort out. But beyond that first section, there are a few miles where the going gets messy and complicated. I was discussing this with some Sebastopol government insiders at a dinner party last night, and all agree that it won’t be easy to plot the best course through this section. Of all of the locales slated for these various projects, Sebastopol is arguably the most bike-friendly venue, and yet the run around the southeast edge of town will be one of the most complicated transits of any of the alignments now up for study.

All three of these projects are a long way from shovel-ready. If we say they’re all in the pipeline, we have to understand that the pipe is very long. But then, all of the successful bike trail (or nature trail) projects we now enjoy were in that long pipeline once upon a time: the Joe Rodota Trail, Prince Greenway, West County Regional Trail, and the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, among others.

For some perspective on how long these projects take to get from visionary dream to asphalt reality, I asked Ken Tam how long the Joe Rodota Trail (between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol) and the West County Regional Trail (between Sebastopol and Forestville) took, and what all was involved. Here’s his reply: "For the development of the West County/Joe Rodota Trail, we used over ten funding sources, such as: Habitat Conservation fund, Coastal Conservancy funds, Land Water Conservation funds, recreational trails grants, gas tax, park bonds, private donations, Proposition 116 funds, transportation funds (federal money), TDA Article 3 funds, Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program. The project has taken over 15 years to complete 13 miles. The project started in 1985. The first segment was constructed in 1990. We still have another trail segment to complete in downtown Forestville. Here is a small list of agencies and committees that helped us complete the project: City of Sebastopol, City of Santa Rosa, Caltrans, Coastal Conservancy, State Fish and Game, State Parks, Sonoma County Water Agency, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Santa Rosa Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Sonoma County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Don’t forgot community organizations such as Sonoma County Trails Council, Santa Rosa Cycling Club and Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition that have provided funding and numerous support letters for our grant applications and have continued to help lobby elected officials to support these trail projects."

That’s a long, daunting laundry list of funding sources and agencies and red tape, and quite a few years involved in getting from A to B. If the same timelines apply on these new projects, I may be too old to ride these trails before they ever see the light of day. But we’re not thinking about these paths for our own immediate gratification. We’re thinking about the long term, about our kids and the others who will be riding bikes 30 and 50 years from now, after we’re gone. Big projects start with big visions, and that’s where we are with these dreams right now. We’ll keep you posted on the progress on all of them as they swim their way upstream, through tangles of red tape and economic recovery and all the other challenges ahead. Big journeys begin with a first step...

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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