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Trail to nowhere 

SLO's Railroad Safety Trail for cyclists is being delayed by Union Pacific

Some paths in life don’t go much of anywhere at all. Take, for instance, the bike trail that runs by the railroad track near the Cal Poly campus in northern San Luis Obispo. Those unfamiliar with the trail, part of the city’s Railroad Safety Trail, might expect it to go somewhere.

It doesn’t.

A New Times reporter who walked much of this section of the path noticed that many bikers preferred riding in the street rather than endure the on-and-off-again trail.

Enter the path where it begins across the street from Cal Poly on California Boulevard, and you’ll soon find your way blocked by a piece of tape at the campus/SLO City border. The next 500 feet is brand new and in perfect shape, but it’s not open yet, so bike riders must swing out into California Boulevard to go south. Then the trail continues for another quarter mile before it dead-ends again, eventually reappearing miles away, just south of the train station.

“It’s very strange,” said Dan Rivoire, executive director of the SLO County Bicycle Coalition. “It’s frustrating how long this has been going on for.”

Rivoire spoke of the struggle many bike enthusiasts and city officials have faced to get a paved, fenced, 4.5-mile bike trail that would run along the railroad track continuously from Orcutt Road in the south, through the heart of the city, and over the freeway to Cal Poly. The city has had to deal with the traditional difficulties of finding grants to pay for the trail. The biggest hindrance to the trail’s construction, however, has been Union Pacific Railroad.

Nothing illustrates the problem better than the section that runs between the city limit and Foothill Boulevard. Sometimes called “the missing link,” this 500-foot section of trail was practically completed in the summer at a cost of more than $600,000—$50,000 of which was raised by the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo, along with $35,000 in private donations. It’s been sealed off ever since. According to Daniel Van Beveren, a city engineer in charge of the project, there’s only one thing standing in the way of opening the link: The railroad needs to approve the design of the traffic light regulating the crossing at Foothill Boulevard.

Union Pacific for more than a century has had nearly complete control of everything within a hundred feet of its track, a situation that gives it a big say in every road or bike trail crossing near its rails. The city has been waiting for the railroad’s approval of the reconfigured intersection since late summer.

Union Pacific has held up the trail in other ways, according to Peggy Mandeville, the city’s principal transportation planner and field general when it comes to bike paths.

The city had designed and engineered a new section of trail running north from the train station to Marsh Street. Not long before construction was slated to begin, the railroad rejected the plans. Another section of trail was designed to go from where it ends now, northeast of Highway 101, across the freeway on a new bridge, and end north of downtown. The railroad also rejected that plan. According to city staff, the railroad has a habit of changing its standards and preferred design parameters.

Mandeville acknowledged the biggest factor slowing the progress of the trail is Union Pacific. However, she said the city and the railroad seem now to be on the same page moving forward. The other big challenge is getting the money for the trail.

“The [City] Council has been good about helping with funding,” Mandeville said.

That’s probably because the City Council doesn’t have to pay much for the trail. According to Mandeville, 90 percent of the money comes from grants and, with creative uses of available cash, the general fund is usually left untapped. Every small part of the trail constructed, even when laid down in helter skelter order, helps to draw more grants, she added.

“They look for progress,” Mandeville said. “No matter how small.”

And the rate of progress seems often to be in the hands of a railroad headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. Union Pacific is a massive company with more than 32,000 miles of track running through 7,300 communities and is known for its labyrinthine bureaucracy.

“We have a good working relationship with the city,” railroad spokesman Aaron M. Hunt said in an e-mail response to New Times. “… Both the city and Union Pacific have been punctual and consistent in the ongoing dialogue about plans, designs, feedback, etc. We will continue to work with the city on this project and we are optimistic we will see a positive outcome for all stakeholders.”

Mandeville said she thinks the trail will likely be complete in less than 10 years, and possibly done in seven, but she admits this is very much a guess, not an estimate.

Still, bike advocates remain hopeful and look forward to its completion. Rivoire said he believes the trail will one day be fully built and will help the city be a safe haven for cyclists.

“It will happen,” Rivoire said. “Someday.” ∆

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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