Sacramento wants to turn train tracks into 4.5-mile trail for bikes, pedestrians

Sam Johnstone, left, and his girlfriend Lauren Shumaker, both of Palo Alto, walk with their dog along an old train line that runs through South Land Park on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. The corridor will serve as the home for the proposed Del Rio Trail. The 4.5-mile line starts near the Sacramento Zoo and ends near Meadowview Road.
Sam Johnstone, left, and his girlfriend Lauren Shumaker, both of Palo Alto, walk with their dog along an old train line that runs through South Land Park on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. The corridor will serve as the home for the proposed Del Rio Trail. The 4.5-mile line starts near the Sacramento Zoo and ends near Meadowview Road.

Sacramento officials have begun laying groundwork for one of the most ambitious “rails to trails” travel corridors in the region, a paved cycling and pedestrian path that would cut for miles through the city’s south area.

They call it the Del Rio Trail. It would stretch for 4.5 miles through Meadowview, South Land Park and other neighborhoods between Interstate 5 and Freeport Boulevard. The city views the trail not just as a potential recreation amenity, but as an alternative commute route for people who would prefer to bike to downtown jobs rather than battle traffic on the city’s crowded freeways and boulevards.

The pavement would be laid over what once was the Walnut Grove branch of the Sacramento Southern Railroad. Trains traveled the corridor until 1978, bringing agricultural products to market.

Sacramento would join Davis, Folsom, Citrus Heights and several other local communities in a growing effort to create inner-city trails that allow cyclists, pedestrians, runners and dog walkers to go for miles to schools, parks, stores and jobs with minimal exposure to cars. The proposed trail passes through some neighborhoods that do not have sidewalks or bike lanes.

“It is a win-win for the neighborhoods and the city, taking an abandoned strip and turning it into something useful,” City Councilman Jay Schenirer said. “It will allow people to commute in more ways that are healthy. This can even lighten traffic in certain commute corridors.”

The section being studied runs between Sutterville Road on the north and Meadowview and Pocket roads on the south. At the trail’s northern end, cyclists commuting to downtown are expected to turn west onto Sutterville Road over I-5 to the river bike trail that heads to Old Sacramento.

Most of the corridor still has rail tracks and is tucked into residential areas, often directly behind backyards. It’s overgrown, unkempt, unpaved and fenced off at some points. But it has long been used by south Sacramento residents as a walking trail in areas where the streets don’t have sidewalks or bike lanes.

The city recently won a $2.2 million grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments for environmental studies and engineering work over the next year. It will take at least several more years to raise funds to build the project, if the concept is approved by the City Council. An early cost estimate: $17 million.

The concept is supported by many residents, including members of the Land Park Community Association, the South Land Park Neighborhood Association, the Cabrillo Park Neighborhood Association and WalkSacramento.

Past proposals sought to return trains to the old tracks – and drew considerable neighborhood opposition. In the 1980s, Sacramento Regional Transit bought much of the right-of-way through south Sacramento, thinking it might build a light rail line there. When community members opposed that idea, RT instead built the Blue Line a mile to the east along an active freight rail line.

Two years ago, California Department of Parks and Recreation officials proposed extending their Old Sacramento tourist train through the neighborhood to Pocket Road. Backed by then-state Sen. Darrell Steinberg and several City Council members, the community forced the state to drop the plan. The state does, however, plan at some point to extend its existing Old Sacramento tourist train south to the Sacramento Zoo in William Land Park, just north of Sutterville Road, with a terminus station there.

The recent fight with the state galvanized some community members to push for the bike and pedestrian concept, said Brian Ebbert, a member of the South Land Park Neighborhood Association, whose house backs up to the rail line.

“That really woke up the neighborhood,” he said. “The last thing we wanted was trains bearing down. We better plan something to make this an amenity rather than an eyesore and nuisance.”

Ebbert is among the residents pushing to resuscitate an old idea of turning the rail corridor into a greenbelt with a paved path, possibly with small parks and urban gardens at wide spots.

City engineer Jesse Gothan said the project will have a number of hurdles to jump, including finding a safe way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross busy Sutterville and Fruitridge roads. Gothan said the city could look at the possibility of a bridge over Fruitridge, where cars travel at high speeds, and a traffic signal and intersection at Sutterville.

And while some neighbors support the idea of a trail, others have raised security concerns about having more people traveling behind their backyards.

The project may also conflict with the plans of the state parks department. Although the state backed off plans to run tourist trains through those neighborhoods, parks officials still would like to have access to the south Sacramento tracks.

That is because the state envisions some day building and running a second tourist train that would operate in the Delta south of Sacramento, with its northern terminus at about Pocket and Meadowview roads. If that excursion train were to be built, state officials have said they would like to use the 4.5-mile section of rail through South Land Park as a route to ship trains north to Old Sacramento for maintenance.

State parks official Dana Jones this week said she could not comment on the city’s plans for the corridor. But she said her agency does hope to have access to the corridor some day to move trains to the planned Delta excursion train line.

The city’s Gothan said city officials would like to talk with state parks officials about extending the trail north of Sutterville Road – into territory the state intends to use as part of its excursion line to the zoo. That way, bikers and pedestrians could get to the river via an old railroad bridge over I-5 rather than having to run along Sutterville Road.

In order to build the Del Rio trail, the city would have to buy the corridor from its owner, Regional Transit. RT officials this week said the agency “has been working with the City of Sacramento to transfer the property and is currently seeking an appraisal for the parcels.”

The city plans to conduct community and stakeholder meetings on the project next year.