Train buffs will fight Sacramento bike trail plan that would remove old tracks

Train advocates say the city better buckle up for a fight over its plans to build a bike and walking trail in an old rail corridor that stretches through South Land Park.

Former Sacramento Kings co-owner Gregg Lukenbill, a member of the California State Railroad Museum Foundation, says his group and others will contest any city effort to rip out train tracks in order to make room for a planned 4.5-mile recreational trail.

The trail would run along an old and unused rail line that slides north-south behind backyards from Sutterville Road to Meadowview Road. The line was last used by trains carrying farm products in 1978. It has since fallen into disrepair and is missing numerous rail sections.

Sacramento Regional Transit, owner of the old corridor, agreed last month to turn the land over to the city for the bike trail. Several neighborhood groups in the area have added their support, calling it a great recreational amenity and potential bike commute corridor for south area residents.

The city is applying for regional bikeway funds this summer in hopes of breaking ground in spring 2020.

But Lukenbill says rail buffs want to keep alive the possibility of some day running excursion trains on the old line through south Sacramento.

Lukenbill said he is angry that the city has pushed the idea forward, including planning to tear out tracks, without talking with rail advocates. He recently told some Land Park residents and City Councilman Jay Schenirer to buckle up for a fight.

"This is a regional issue, a historic issue, this is a railroad issue and it is exactly how we treat the history of Sacramento every time," Lukenbill said. "This looks like an Alhambra Theatre all over."

Lukenbill said he was speaking for himself, not the foundation board, when he told the city to brace for a fight.

But a foundation official also has strongly protested the city's planning process for the trail. In a January letter, foundation president Cheryl Marcell said the foundation supports building a bike and recreation trail, but opposes removing any tracks, calling them "an undisputed historical resource."

She wrote that her group is "troubled" the city did not come to it earlier to ask for its input. She accused the city of planning to remove the tracks as a "fait accompli" before her group or others could give its opinion.

The museum foundation is a private fundraising group that works with the museum and state parks, but is not formally a part of those groups.

For their part, state parks officials have talked in the past about various plans for extending the existing Old Sacramento tourist or excursion train beyond its current terminus along the Sacramento Riverfront at the south end of downtown.

The Old Sacramento State Historic Park general plan mentions two eventual potential excursion train additions. One plan would be to extend the train from Old Sacramento to the Sacramento Zoo at Sutterville Road. That plan has won general support from city officials.

Another plan, currently shelved, has proven far more controversial. State parks officials say they would consider, at some point, adding an excursion train that would start and finish its run through farmland and a wildlife refuge between Pocket Road and Hood Franklin Road. That plan initially involved periodically transporting trains through the 4.5 mile residential corridor in South Land Park, without passengers, to get them to and from maintenance in Old Sacramento.

The state, however, erased references to that 4.5-mile transport section through South Land Park when it updated its Old Sacramento park general plan four years ago, according to Matt Bellah, the state parks Old Sacramento district superintendent.

Bellah said in order for the state to reconsider running trains through South Land Park, it would have to hold new hearings and rewrite its Old Sacramento historic park general plan. There are no plans to do that, he said.

Jesse Gothan, the city's recreation trail project manager, said he is hoping to avoid a fight with rail buffs. He said he plans to talk with the museum foundation members in the next few weeks to explain the city's plans, and point out that those plans now envision removing about 10 percent of the tracks to make room for the recreation trail, less than originally planned.

"I am excited to meet with the foundation and show them what we have come up with," he said.

Councilman Jay Schenirer said the city fully intends to get a bike trail built in the corridor and will respect the history of the rails, but he believes the excursion idea is dead.

South Land Park Neighborhood Association president Brian Ebbert said his group also will support maintenance of existing tracks, but only as an homage to city rail culture. It will, however, fight any attempt by the state or rail buffs to run excursion trains through there.

"Bottom line," he said, "the South Land Park Neighborhood is buckled up and ready to go."

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