CalTrain trail proposal challenged

Article published in January 1997

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San Mateo County Supervisor Tom Huening has proposed building a multipurpose trail for cyclists and pedestrians along the length of the CalTrain right-of-way within San Mateo County. The proposal has met with opposition from rail and bicycle activists concerned about the trail's design and safety issues.

Many rail advocates oppose the trail because it threatens to obstruct improvements needed in rail infrastructure. They believe that the CalTrain line will need to be expanded to three or four tracks to facilitate more express trains and potential high speed rail to southern California. They have argued that providing the extra tracks for more trains is a more effective use of the right-of-way.

Peninsula Rail 2000 president Adrian Brandt believes that many stretches of the right-of-way are not wide enough to safely accommodate the trail with the present CalTrain tracks. He feels that it is premature to assume that high speed trains will require additional tracks, while at the same time it is also premature to assume that they will not. (PR2000 has not taken an official position on the trail.)

Brandt also notes that the CalTrain JPB just a year ago voted to spend $125,000 to install "No Trespassing" signs every 600 feet along the right of way and to crack down on trespassers due to an increase in fatalities. Also the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, chaired by Huening, is spending tens of millions of dollars to separate CalTrain grade crossings with underpasses and overpasses. Huening's multipurpose trail would cross the tracks in several places at grade.

Huening is also one of the few San Mateo County elected officials who has opposed or shown little support for major upgrades to CalTrain including a downtown San Francisco extension and a direct connection to SFO airport.

The proposed trail has met strong vocal opposition from bicyclists concerned about the trail's hefty $10 million cost estimate and safety issues. These issues include proximity to CalTrain tracks, routing via sidewalks at many busy street intersections, and difficulties with collision avoidance between bicyclists and pedestrians, pedestrians with dogs, rollerbladers, etc. on multipurpose paths.

According to Scott Mace of the Mid-Peninsula Bicycle Coalition, Huening and Richard Silver, Chief Clerk of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, another trail supporter, are likely to succeed in enlisting support of recreational bicyclists for the trail. Mace is concerned that their campaign for the trail could lead to a false perception of the trail as similar to a rural bikeway free of obstacles.

Mace explained that people who use a bicycle as a primary transportation mode are the most vocal on such issues and are accustomed to sharing the road with cars. By contrast, recreational bicyclists use their bicycles less frequently, are less involved with the issues, and find the concept of a path free of cars appealing.

Since Staying on Track went to press, we obtained a letter on this matter from Daniel S. Leavitt, Executive Director of the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission to CalTrain JPB chair Jean McCown. In the letter, Leavitt wrote:

"...The Caltrain right-of-way is the only feasible way of bringing high speed rail to San Francisco and is already highly constrained for serving both commuter and intercity passengers. Three or four tracks will be needed throughout most of the corridor. Furthermore, the system will need to be grade separated and fenced. (following sentence underlined) A bike path in the Caltrain corridor would probably preclude high speed rail service on the Peninsula.

I urge that you do not fund further exploration of using portions of the Caltrain right-of-way as a bike path. It it essential that the right-of-way be preserved for future passenger rail use...."

Update: Due to pressure from bicycle and rail activists, Huening in January 1998 withdrew his sponsorship of the "rail trail", effectively killing the plan.

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Last updated: December 2, 1998

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