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[whitespace] Railroad trail could serve as a way for locals to avoid a car commute

Los Gatos--A proposed trail along a local railroad could potentially serve as a transportation corridor for commuters.

The project's consultant said that since the trail would run near popular hubs, such as De Anza and West Valley colleges, and the proposed light rail station in Los Gatos, it could be used for more than just recreational purposes. The proposed 8.7-mile-long trail would parallel a portion of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

While a study of the proposed trail is moving along as planned, the project faces hurdles, which include public opinion, design logistics, funding and, greatest of all, the railroad itself.

The trail, which would run through Los Gatos, Campbell, Saratoga and Cupertino, was discussed in Los Gatos at a June 21 public meeting held by the project's consultants, who are conducting a feasibility study. Only a handful of people showed up, the majority being Los Gatans, including Councilman Steve Glickman.

Cupertino held its own public meeting June 7, which drew a larger crowd, primarily of Cupertino residents. According to George Hudson, trail consultant from Alta Transportation Consulting, the general opinion at that meeting was to leave the existing--albeit illegal--trail alone and not spend money on improving it.

The trail would run from Winchester Boulevard in Los Gatos on the south, and stop at the Hanson Permanente Cement Company plant, near Highway 280 and Foothill Boulevard, on the northernmost end. The trail could be extended to reach Rancho San Antonio on the north in the future.

People now walk and bike along the railroad line--illegally. The land is owned by Union Pacific and is formally restricted from public use. Union Pacific, however, acknowledges that the trail is being used, but will not be held liable in case of an accident because members of the public are trespassers on their property.

"I don't know what the cards hold for this," Hudson said. Although Union Pacific is generally against the public using adjoining land as trails, "railroads generally don't like being bad neighbors," Hudson said.

The deciding factors? Money--how much the cities will pay Union Pacific for acquisition rights to the right-of-way--and the dynamics between the negotiators. "It boils down a lot to personalities," Hudson said.

Saratoga Tidbit

The four cities plan to transform the strip of dirt road into a designated public trail, allowing for commuters, exercisers and nature lovers to ride or walk along the railroad line. Similar "rails with trails" projects have been done in the Lafayette/Moraga area, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Hudson said that there are 60 such lines in the United States, with 50 more in the works.

Union Pacific's main concern, according to Hudson, is with the increased liability. The railroad's concern, Hudson said, is that it would "invite people on the trail" and allow for more accidents. Only two lawsuits, however, have resulted from the existing 60 trails, Hudson said.

So far Union Pacific representatives have met with Director of Public Works Ralph Qualls once. Two more meetings are scheduled.

Other constraints of the project include problem spots along the railroad line. There are five creek crossings that are part of the trail--at Calabazas, Saratoga, San Tomas, Vasona and Stevens creeks--that bring environmental issues such as the potential endangerment of fish and frog species. There is a 20-foot-wide tunnel near Foothill Boulevard that is too narrow to allow for Union Pacific's requirement of 25 feet between the railroad and the trail. There are street crossings that may require pedestrian bridges, such as Pollard Road in Los Gatos.

There is also the matter of funding. While the project will most likely be funded through a mixture of VTA transportation moneys, other county contributions and allocations from each city, nothing has been set in stone. At a recent discussion of improvement projects that the city of Saratoga will be funding over the next five years, the Saratoga City Council deemed the proposed trail project a low priority.

"It's so far off in the future at this point," said Saratoga Public Works Director John Cherbone.

Hudson said that acquisition of railroad trails usually costs between one and two dollars per year. "Ballpark figures" for development are $500,000 to $600,000 per mile, and $6,000 per mile each year for maintenance. The project cost--including acquisition, development and maintenance--is expected to total $9 million.

Hours of operation, and surface material--such as asphalt, gravel or dirt--depend on funding. If federal transportation funds are offered for the trail, the development will be geared toward commuters. The trail would be open 24 hours a day, and would consist of a bicycle-friendly surface.

Hudson's feasibility study is set to conclude in October. In the meantime, Hudson will continue gathering input, drawing designs and location options, specifying costs and holding more public meetings.

"We're asking if it's possible, asking if it's usable, and then drawing some ways it can be done," said Hudson's associate John Ciccarelli, speaking on the purpose of the feasibility study.

Hudson said that a "quick turnaround" of the project would be for completion in five years. A more reasonable expectation would be 10 years.

During the Los Gatos meeting, an inquiry was made regarding public participation in the project. In addition to filling out an Alta Transportation survey found on www.altaplanning.com, Hudson said that an official grassroots organization formed by residents would be helpful.

"It takes some key citizens," Hudson said, suggesting a "Friends of"-type group to support the yet-unnamed trail.
Gloria I. Wang

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