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Sonoma's Bike Trail in Limbo on Railroad Land

Why does the city bike trail end at 4th St. East? Because Union Pacific thinks their unusable rail line is worth a million.

After a summer of bicycle "accidents" - some might call them collisions, crashes or in at least one case in Oakmont, assaults - the number of cyclists on Sonoma roads shows no sign of letting up.

Fortunately, here in the Sonoma Valley there are a number of bike-friendly routes and even bike paths where family cyclists as well as more ambitious athletes can pedal their way through the Valley of the Moon. Visit this page or see the attached map for several.

Recently an inquiry came to Sonoma Patch from about the incomplete nature of Sonoma bicycle routes.  "The town of Sonoma has well-used trails in the city limits, and for better or worse, roads in the county, like 7th street, also see a fair number of cyclists and morning walkers," wrote Jim Riley earlier this week.

He goes on to ask a valid question:

"I am new in town so maybe the answer is obvious, but I can't understand why the part of the railroad right-of-way that was used for the Sonoma bike path sits apparently unused once it leaves the city and comes under the county. It is clearly visible along 8th street, and where it meets 7th street. It is on county bike route plans, and probably has been for a long time. Why has it not happened?"

On inquiry to the Sonoma County Bike Coalition, aka BikeSonoma.org, it turns out that executive director Gary Helfrich had recently responded to this very same question from another bicyclist, as follows:

"The railroad right-of-way along 8th Street East has a complicated chain of title. When Northwest Pacific went out of business, Southern Pacific bought their assets. Southern Pacific then went into receivership and all of the old NWP property was transferred to SMART with the exception of the 8th Street East line.

"This was not an oversight, but relic of the complex system of granting right-of-way to railroads. Union Pacific then bought the assets of Southern Pacific and ended up with this abandoned railroad to nowhere. Union Pacific's property division and the County are at odds on how much this land is worth, so it might be a long time before the right-of-way can be acquired."

When I called to clarify, Helfrich - a former Sonoma County Transportation Planner - pointed out that the railroad right-of-way is on county maps as the potential Sonoma-Schellville Trail in case state or federal funds become available to purchase it.  "You've got to keep it in the plan or it won't be eligible for funds," he said.

It's unlikely to happen anytime soon, however, since Union Pacific values the land at "pre-economic crisis" rates, while the current assessment is much lower, according to Helfrich. The railroad's property extends from the end of the city bike path at 4th St. East to curve south, parallel to East 8th St., all the way to Hwy. 121.

However, the route cannot be used for rail transport, because it no longer links to the federal rail system - SMART has purchased the intervening track between Schellville to Napa Station.

"As a railroad, it [the property] doesn't have any practical use," said Helfrich. "They'd be happy to sell it - for an unreasonable price."

So until Union Pacific reduces their price tag on the 50-foot wide, 3 miles-long property (thought to be over $1 million), southbound cyclists still try to battle the big rigs on East 8th St. - where bicyclist Brian Laurie lost his life on June 21.

Publius September 21, 2012 at 07:18 PM
To encourage creative and beneficial uses of such properties (e.g., the new High Line in Manhattan) and discourage the blight we see there now, the County should consider assessing new fees or taxes on all stubbed railroad properties that owners have abandoned. If that doesn't provide sufficient motivation, eminent domain would result in paying fair market value. It's time for the Board of Supervisors to take action on this.
Christian Kallen September 21, 2012 at 08:39 PM
Very interesting ideas, Publius. This cannot be the only "stubbed" railroad property in the county, and the solution could help several communities and many citizens.
JR September 22, 2012 at 01:42 PM
A railroad isn't going to care much about a county, but maybe if some of our federal representatives called on them, they might be more inclined to listen?
JR September 24, 2012 at 10:24 PM
Might there be some option short of outright ownership, such as a lease or easement?

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