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[whitespace] Railroad against plan to create trail along tracks

Saratoga--Plans to create an 8.7-mile trail along a Union Pacific Railroad line through Saratoga and Los Gatos seem to be moving forward right on schedule

Trouble is, the railroad is against the project.

Union Pacific sees the proposal as incompatible with the railroad, given the risk of having people walking and biking so closely to a rail line carrying a heavy load, according to the Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney.

"It's a risk," Furtney said. "People in the rail industry sort of shudder at the prospect of adding to what we know already goes on unofficially."

The proposed trail is to run along a segment, beginning in Los Gatos, through Campbell and Saratoga, and ending in Cupertino. The cost of the project is expected to be $9.2 million.

Cupertino, the lead agency on the project, has prepared a memorandum of understanding to study the feasibility of building the trail. Saratoga has accepted the memorandum and approved spending $10,000 for the $200,000 study. Cupertino, Campbell and Los Gatos are scheduled to commit their share of the money in March.

The line, which is generally referred to as the Vasona branch, runs between San Jose and the Hanson Permanente Cement Company's plant in Cupertino. It carries coal and runs three times a week, usually once a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Furtney said.

Grooves worn into the ground along the train track are evidence that people have already created an unofficial trail, although the users are technically trespassing on Union Pacific property. Furtney said that Union Pacific's concern is that a trail along the tracks could mean that people would walk along or across the rail lines.

"We don't want to put people so close to an active track that a momentary foolhardy act would get them in trouble," Furtney said. In addition, Union Pacific was never formally approached about the project, according to Furtney.

An official from Cupertino did contact Union Pacific. According to Furtney, the company received a "Dear interested party" letter, inviting a Union Pacific representative to the project's task force meeting on March 1.

"We told them offline--because we're not going to be able to attend the meeting--that this use would be incompatible with a freight railroad," Furtney said. "So, at least initially, we would not be in favor of the project as we understand it.

Raymond Chong, Cupertino's traffic engineer, declined comment on Union Pacific's response. He cited as a reason that he didn't want to threaten future negotiations with the company for an easement, which would give the cities the right to use the property for a trail, but would not constitute a sale of the property.

According to Chong, bikers, equestrians and walkers have been pushing for a dedicated trail for years and currently use the property as a real trail, both for recreation and possibly for commuting.

Saratoga Mayor John Mehaffey said he is not worried that the city council has committed spending money on a feasibility study before getting Union Pacific's approval for the project. He said the commitment does not mean the city has agreed to fund the actual trail.

"I don't see how Saratoga could justify spending a million or so on this particular trail, as much as we'd like to have it," Mehaffey said. "But I'm certainly willing to fund the feasibility study."

Parks and Forestry Supervisor for the town of Los Gatos Tim Boyer said that the $10,000 is not that much of an investment at this point. "Once we get past the feasibility study is when the big money is needed," he said.

Although Furtney said the proposal--a trail along an active track--is uncommon, Union Pacific has granted easements for similar projects in the past. Around 1998, the city of Chico acquired an easement from Union Pacific to build a one-mile bike path along tracks near California State University, Chico, according to E.C. Ross, Chico's public work's director.

The easement cost nothing, Ross said, and he guessed that Union Pacific felt that the increased safety for people who had been walking or riding on the property, anyway, was the draw for Union Pacific, since the path is separated from the rail lines by a 6-foot-high chain link fence. Ross said there had been accidents, even deaths, on the property before the trail was established and the fence installed.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has committed to funding 80 percent--over $7 million--of the trail project, according to John Pilger, the public information manager for the VTA. He said the reason the VTA is involved with the project is because it seeks to provide a balance of all kinds of transportation alternatives in the area, and specifically tries to manage congestion. It sees the proposal as a way to do that, Pilger said.

The memorandum of understanding that Saratoga's city council approved on Feb. 21, formalizes the joint effort to do a feasibility study. Besides exploring whether the project is even doable, the study would outline a negotiating strategy for the jurisdictions to use in dealings with Union Pacific for the easement, Chong said. A consultant, Alta Transportation Consulting, has been hired to do the study, and according to Chong, the company is scheduled to finish it in October 2001.

The VTA will pay for $160,000 of the study, which means that the four cities would have to split the balance of $40,000.

According to the most up-to-date cost breakdown, which is based partly on mileage in the four cities, Saratoga, with 3.7 miles of the trail, would pay $10,000, as would Los Gatos, which would have 1.3 miles. Cupertino, with 3.4 miles, would pay $18,000, while Campbell, with .3 miles, would pay $2,000.
Kara Chalmers

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