Turning Rails into Trails

Rails to Trails is a term for the conversion of obsolete rail lines into recreational trails. This has been done all over the United States. Railroad lines provide unique and scenic routes through cities. These trails lend themselves to both recreation and transportation that is not dependent on gas.

Railroad lines are abandoned for a variety of reasons, like major factories closing or fixed-point railroad lines losing out to the flexible trucking industry. We may find that in the future that the closing of railroad lines is shortsighted because it may limit future industrial growth, and/or we may have reached “Peak Oil.” Peak Oil may actually force us as a society to return to the railroad. However, that is a larger discussion and only time will tell.

Last week, the Council authorized the City Manager to purchase property from Union Pacific railroad for $6 million. It was a long process in dealing with the railroad as they originally were not a willing seller. This property was historically zoned for housing and Union Pacific had the right to build housing without going to the Planning Commission or City Council for approval, according to the Planning Dept. Unfortunately, cities are not allowed to re-zone railroad property to lower the value prior to purchase and thus must pay the highest and best use for the land. The use of eminent domain is not viable since the railroads have been notorious for suing cities against having their land taken away. Railroads have protection under federal law. Inverse condemnation lawsuits end up costing cities more since the railroad usually receives the highest and best use of the land value plus penalties for the intentional action by the public agency.

The true testament in moving forward was the desire to purchase the property and a more open communication with the railroad company coming together. In addition, the housing bubble/recession thwarted housing construction on this property in the interim. The desire of the City Council was unanimous to pursue this property with approval of my memo in 2007 and the support of trail advocates, which helped garner grant money from several sources to cover the purchase price.

Due to fuel uses and brake pads, the land underneath the railroad tracks is typically contaminated. In this case, Union Pacific has paid to remove contaminated soil and replace it with clean soil and seed it for native grasses. I am happy that the city was able to secure the clean land. However, the city does not have the money to pave an asphalt trail at this time. The organization, Save our Trails, is in the process of signing a formal agreement to adopt the trail and will pick up litter and cut down weeds.

This parcel also includes a beautiful trestle bridge that goes over a creek. Making the bridge safe for pedestrians and bicycles is the first priority, and grant money has been obtained to start the process.

This trail connection, known as the Three Creeks Trail, has a goal of connecting the Los Gatos Creek Trail, Guadalupe Creek Trail and Coyote Creek Trail with a unique east-west alignment, as opposed to most trails in San Jose that run north-south.

Grants can be a painful process as many cities apply but only a certain percentage are actually awarded. In this case, San Jose obtained grants from the County of Santa Clara park trust fund, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Open Space Authority and a state of California grant to come soon. In the interim, some funds from the Construction and Conveyance tax are covering the purchase price and will be replenished once the state funds are received.

I am very thankful for all the people who worked on this project, including elected officials, staff and trail advocates. However, I have a question. Should cities rely on grants to fund projects?

The good news is we have no mortgage payment on this property and the maintenance will be adopted by volunteers. But it seems like local government is always begging for money from larger government, even though larger government takes money from local government frequently.

Our own city policy of exempting affordable housing developers from paying park fees created a lost opportunity of approximately $90 million dollars, which could have been used for parks and trails. That left San Jose needing to apply for state grants that if we are lucky may add up to $10 million, rather than the $90 million that was left on the table. It would seem simpler for local governments to fund their own projects rather than having to anticipate the different and changing priorities of state and federal office holders.


  1. PO

    We grow tired of your weekly manifestos!

    Really, 6 million for a RR trail, how is it the city cries fiscal emergency and yet you keep pulling money out of your A##.  When does it stop!

    Council member comes up with 14K (out of naming rights fund) to save a skateboard park for a few months.  How many other slush funds and hidden money is out there.  How about hiring a couple of cops or extend library hours?

    This trail will not open for years, seeking state funds Will not happen!  No money to pave the trail, my GOD, you guys might as well burn this city to the ground!

    • You misread the memo: NO city was used to buy the right of way; ALL the $6M has come from (or will come) from grants. And even if the trail doesn’t open for years, at least the land has been preserved for whenever it can be constructed.

      PS – No one is forcing you to read PO’s weekly memos if it makes you so tired.

  2. Sounds like another homeless encampment and trail for their use.  You have got to be kidding me,  I am sure this great trail group will pick up trash on this abandoned dirt trail every few years.

    Maybe it can go right by the proposed vacant land where the A’s will never play!

    This council is just crazy and out of control.

    • It’s the vacant unused right-of-way that attracts homeless encampments. When the trail is built and attracts users (it would certainly attract ME!) then I expect the homeless will look for somewhere else to set up camp.

  3. “Unfortunately, cities are not allowed to re-zone railroad property to lower the value prior to purchase and thus must pay the highest and best use for the land.”

    Pier, why exactly do you believe the solution that you lament would be equitable?  Sounds like a government “screw job” to me.  Do we really need more of that?

  4. “Our own city policy of exempting affordable housing developers from paying park fees created a lost opportunity of approximately $90 million dollars, which could have been used for parks and trails. That left San Jose needing to apply for state grants that if we are lucky may add up to $10 million, rather than the $90 million that was left on the table”

    You make me sick and wonder why our once great city is going down the toilet.

    You (city council) should be ashamed of yourselves.

    I really think you just post this crap to piss us all off, you have an agenda and it will all come out soon enough.  I wonder when you sit back in your high rise city hall office chair that you get a chuckle reading all the negative crap that people like me write back.

    Sad day in city management, thank God I moved away with my pension.

  5. 6 million dollars?  Peak oil? 
    While the city teeters on the edge of insolvency?

    This column is a messaging trainwreck.

    And to boot – shouldn’t we have spent the 6 million on sandbags to protect us against the rising oceans caused by man made global warming?

    My advice is to call Ken Yeager post haste. 

    He’s the go to guy for messaging – if you can catch him when he’s not waging jihad against happy meals or engaged in mortal combat against smokers in unincorporated areas.


  6. First off, it’s ‘eminent domain’, not ‘imminent domain’. But anyway…
    Building a network of bike paths throughout San Jose, particularly along the natural corridors of the creek system, is a worthwhile goal and one that the City should pursue. And thwarting a potential “affordable housing” project is a positive side effect that will save money in the long run.
    So I’m in favor of the City buying this land but I won’t hold my breath waiting for an actual trail to be built. We’re spending millions ensuring that the bums and the fish are able to enjoy our creeks but we seem to mysteriously run out of money when it comes to providing and maintaining infrastructure for the people.

    There’s a parcel of land along Guadalupe Creek that the City ALREADY owns- or did until recently. The City has evidently turned it over to developers for yet another high density housing project. It’s at the corner of Almaden Expressway and Coleman Rd. 
    The “Notice of Development” sign has been posted, signifying the interval in which the people are given an opportunity to go through the motions of pretending that they have any say so. But of course, it’s a done deal and too late to stop. Too bad. If left undeveloped it could have been incorporated into a creekside park system. But I guess it’s more important that we build the low income population in the area so that the proposed WalMart downstream will have plenty of customers.
    So right now in the AP power rankings in San Jose, the Public Employee Unions have fallen to #2 and have been replaced by the Developers in the #1 position. The field is rounded out with the Race Pandering Lobby at #3, the Pretending To Be Green Lobby at #4, the High Tech Industry Lobby at #5, and The People trailing the field at a distant #6.

  7. Your message should have included that according to law, some money is restricted from being spent on things like cops and libraries.  Voters approved money for state park grants and county park grants. These monies must be spent on parks. If San Jose doesn’t ask for its fair share, the park money WILL be spent elsewhere.

    • Hey Data Girl.
          The city is responsible for three primary things. Sewer, roads and public safety.  Have you driven the roads around San Jose lately?  Have you seen the crime reports lately.  I cannot comment on sewer and water as I don’t have the information.  Your city is failing.  Why buy some trails that have NO WAY of being made safe.  When this goes through I will challenge you to walk them during the evening hours.  No, I take that back.  The city crime stats are climbing with out your assistance.  I’m sorry to have said that.  I really do not want you hurt.

  8. Access for all users is kind of important in planning a livable city where walking or taking a bicycle is actually viable (and your not expected to battle it out with cars for a share of the roadway.)

    Abandoned rail spurs and lines have been converted successfully around the country into pedestrian and bike trails and there is a national advocacy group called “rails to trails.”

    I thought that in a built out area like ours the rail right of ways offered one of the few bargain ways to add off-road linkages for a pedestrian and bike network.  Riding a bike with cars speeding past you on the edge of the roadway sucks and definitely makes it feel unsafe.

    While everyone is playing chicken little with pensions and service cuts, its nice to see some pro-active movement on making the community a little better at the same time.  I think that’s what leadership is, not just muddling through crisis to crisis but pushing for a positive future amidst all the cutting and horse trading.

    In terms of getting stuff built, a couple of observations.  Light rail is supposed to be fast and efficient because unlike streetcars, it doesn’t have to share the road right of way.  We built light rail like a streetcar system however.  Bicycle commuters, like light rail, should be able to enjoy a traffic light free commute on a seperate right of way.  Rails to Trails and other such movements have included routing transit lines along with pedestrians and bicyclists in a shared right of way off road using abandon rail lines.  I think we might be able to do more.

    Also, railroads are some of the oldest, richest and most powerful interests in our country, so getting them to except less money is hard.  Nonetheless, if imminent domain works with a parking lot for a luxury hotel, why not take on the railroads or phone company or whoever is being greedy and tell them what fair market value they’ll receive rather than letting them haggle upwards based on hypothetical alternative uses like high density condos that wouldn’t get approved on such parcels (or maybe they would in SJ.)

  9. Fellow SJI Blog Readers and Commenters

    Some of you weekly ( weakly ) disagree with Pierluigi, others praise him but unlike the rest of Council he writes his weekly opinions, policy recommendations, suggests changes in current government practice, and providing us information generally not well known

    Personally I look forward to seeing what he has to say each week, many times I agree, sometimes not, a few times he upset me but he puts himself, his ideas, recommendations and opinions out there for everyone to see which I respect and you should to even if you disagree

    More not less public open discussion strengthens our city government and makes for better public decisions and better use of our city taxes

    San Jose’s 2-3 most politically ambitious wanntabe career politicians hide most of their controversial opinions or have none unless their opinions or votes advance their political careers, build support for future elections, give political paybacks to raise campaign funds most of which are done in City Hall backrooms or away from City Hall private closed door meetings

    Look at other Council members:
    – do you know where they stand on anything,
    – do they have clear stated public opinions and recommendations on important issues and spending taxes,
    – do their few public statements say and comamit to anything they can be held accountable for in future or do they make empty feel good political statements
    – do they make any workable recommendations to solve major government challenges even if some ( special interest groups ) will loudly disagree

    If your answer is No, they do not, then you really don’t know where these career politicians stand.

    You deserve to be politically surprised and upset when they vote or give taxes to special interest groups or for projects you do not support becuse you don’t know what or who they support, not you or public

    Personally I don’t expect to agree with all of any elected official’s opinions or recommendations and don’t with Pierluigi

    We as residents, taxpayers and voters should expect and demand elected officials
    –  publicly state their opinions on important public issues,
    – demand accountability for taxes spent, support and encourage open transparent government,
    – be open and accessible to voters, residents and local businesses
    – do what is in best interests of public not 2 powerful special interest – Labor and Chamber who are Pierluigi’s most vocal critics because he equally suggests spending taxes for public good, not more special interests subsidies and giveaways

    Has he always done all of this – no but way more that any other Council members which I respect and encourages him to continue

    • I guess PLO was never taught that it is better to be quiet and thought to be a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

      I praise him for speaking his mind. Fortunately, it gives all of us very good insight into the confused logic, misplaced priorities, inconsistent thinking, and political spin behind his actions.

      Unfortunately, if everyone were to speak up in this forum, I don’t doubt many of our leaders would reveal identical shortcomings. To hear from them, you just need to refer to their significant presence in more significant media.

    • You’re right. Well said.
      I appreciate Pierluigi’s candor and the weekly opportunity to get some insight to what’s going on at City Hall.
      His frankness and honesty as a city Councilperson should be the rule- not the exception to the rule.

  10. “This parcel also includes a beautiful trestle bridge that goes over a creek. Making the bridge safe for pedestrians and bicycles is the first priority, and grant money has been obtained to start the process.”

    As a public project, this will probably cost the taxpayers $10million+…when we have a deficit for 11 years running now.

    Buying more stuff you can’t maintain.  The $6million should have gone into the police and fire pension funds.

    You’re all fiddling while Rome burns, and you just don’t get it.  WE’RE BROKE and you buy land you have no $$ to maintain.

    • Didn’t we use to have the engineering and construction savvy to make bridges and trails that lasted for decades (like during the Works Progress Administration)?  Seem like we could build it right the first time so the bridge and trail don’t have to get repaired as frequently.

      BTW – I like adding physical amenities to a community, its a tangible example of “public goods” and give me a warm and fuzzy feeling when I walk around and use it.  Yeah, we’ve got homeless, gangs, grafitti artists and all the rest, but folks like bike and pedestrian trails and a connected network of trails will get used.  I bet you it does more than an abandoned railroad right of way for folks who live and work nearby.

  11. I’m surprised you didn’t title your essay, ” best pensions, worst trails.”

    Now Sam Liccardo and Carl Gardino will now have new trails to bike. What a waste!

  12. I am a fan of trails. I’d like to see what a bunch of volunteers with shovels, a lot of 2X4s and a few truckloads of decomposed granite could do to get this new trail open to the public.
    I know I would show up for weekend work parties to help out.


    • The funding for the trail is from dedicated open space/parks funds which can’t be used for other purposes. Easy to look up. Try a little education before insults.

      • Who is stupid? Debra Figone is stupid!  Judging by the size of awards some California Police agencies won it is apparnet that Figone could have applied for a heck of a lot more Federal Grant Money. Money that could only have been used to hire poice officers.  Instead it was more important to apply for $6mil to buy land from a railroad and make it a trail…  Nice going Deb!  Judge for yourself… source is :::


        Fairfield Police Department

        Indio Police Department

        Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

        Monterey County

        Novato Police Department

        City of Oakland

        Placer County Sheriff’s Department

        City of Redlands

        Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department

        Sacramento Police Department

        City of Salinas

        San Joaquin County Sheriff

        City of San Jose

        City of Stockton

        City of Tulare

        I edited out much smaller cities that received much less grant money while leaving in much smaller cities (like Stockton, Tulare, Oakland …) that applied for and got much more.  How about Sac County and Sac City?  Way to go Deb!!!!!!


    • No need for the $6mil, DirtyDeb just got her $1.7mil Federal Cops grant money which will probably be used to find another audit showing how we can to even more with even less – OR- maybe to fund her citypaid deferred comp – OR – pay the mayor’s law enforcement advisor Joe Salcido and maybe even hire some assistants or staff to help Joe in his retirement career. 
      In any case we can all be assured that every dollar this City’s administration gets it hands on will be squandered somewhere.

      • Meyer Weed is correct, while the city is wasting millions on trails, zoo’s, operas, and Jose Salcido the police department struggles to fight crime.

        The wolf showed up again in Cupertino and Sunnyvale just outside the city of San Jose border. The citizens better get ready for this happen more often, be safe!

        • I don’t care if Public Safety had 10,000 cops in San Jose.  That would never have stopped the event in Cupertino and Sunnyvale.  Besides with the all out manhunt the suspect was taken into custody by 3 deputies having a talk.
              Your continued wishful hurting of us citizens is getting public safety no sympathy. I know you will have to respond with a John Wayne statement.

        • First of all, that’s a catchy blog moniker, you must work for murky news. True, 10,000 cops would not have stopped him, but when the frantic calls for help came into 911 to stop this mad man, it was 50 to 75 cops from all over the county that responded to the scene.

          Before you speak about police tactic’s from the comfort of your living room, you should learn more about it and not show how naive you are.

          Last time I checked the deputies shot and killed an armed suspect that threatened their lives.

          I don’t wish this on anybody, but reality sometimes shows up at your door step and there is nothing you can do about it.

          You should be grateful that there are men and woman out there ready to put their lives on the line to commit violence on your behalf, and the rest of the citizens of San Jose.

          No John Wayne here, just doing my job the best I can, so I can come home to family every night. A job, I know, you can never do. Be safe!

        • Where were all the “open carry” whackos when we needed them? sitting in Starbuck’s somewhere wishing they could CCW while they were wetting their pants and hiding their unloaded weapons.

      • Or maybe she could squeeze out enough for a small, used jet for her business travel.  It would, of course be named “Fig One.”

  14. $6 million for buying a railroad line when you and our mayor have said we are in in a fiscal crisis? The timing of this couldn’t be worse. Please don’t spend millions of dollars to buy old railroad lines. This is the kind of past spending that got us to this place.

  15. More tears, rants and complaints against Pierluigi by special interest supporters, city employees and others who benefit from getting city tax money

    What he says make good common sense – stop wasting city taxes, cut spending, stop tax giveaways, stop raising taxes and fees – what he says is common sense to most voters and taxpayers

    The 5 unions but not all unions have made good suggestions on reducing city pension costs but the other unions and those who get city taxes need to help cut city spending or voters will do it at the ballot box if not done soon

    • Trust me, that’s only the beginning, the acquisition cost.  Making it kid-proof, I mean safe, will be another $10million or so, and take three years worth of studies, EIRS, hearings, public comments, rules writing, and other process that our mayor and council are so bloody fond of.  So how many more cops will get pink slips for this little slip of a trail?

  16. I am glad you think trails and parks and spending 6,000,000 dollars is more important than peoples livelihood and jobs and careers thank you for wasting our city money. I truly truly believe that you and the mayor and city council members have your own agenda and personal ideas. and you really do not care about the city and how it is managed. Makes u
    Angry and sad that this is happening.

  17. I look forward to riding this trail. Many rails-to-trails programs across the country have resulted in excellent projects that have made their respective cities more enjoyable places to live. Smart move getting the land while it was selling at such a low rate.

  18. It is interesting that Oliverio’s critics in their upset, personal attacks and anger don’t seem to be able to read or understand where the trail money came from for the trails and that it is restricted grants

    ” San Jose obtained grants from the County of Santa Clara park trust fund, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Open Space Authority and a state of California grant to come soon. In the interim, some funds from the Construction and Conveyance tax are covering the purchase price and will be replenished once the state funds are received. “

    The money came with restrictions that it be used only for trail – nothing else – so all the noise about spending money for other uses – additional police, etc—can not be done or the grants will be taken back.

    You may disagree but that is the way the grants were written by the other government agencies

    Other city spending could be used for pubic safety , streets, libraries – those city services considered by most cities to be essential city services.

    San Jose purposefully does not have a essential city services definition because Council and City Manager do not want to be held accountable for properly funding essential city services

    Without a essential city services definition and performance measurement standards for each service they can not be held accountable

    They set it up back in when Figone was Assistant City Manager to Les White that way so they can spend taxes on non essential city services and political paybacks, contracts to friends, economic development, tax giveaways without being held accountable

    Mayor Gonzales spent San Jose into massive debt and billions in future pension and other obligations which is partially responsible for reduced services and layoffs along with tems millions spend for non essential services

    No Essential City Services Definition and performance measurements = Wasted Taxes spent on non essential city services and political paybacks, contracts to friends, economic development, tax giveaways without Council and City Manager being held accountable

  19. @…“It is interesting that Oliverio’s critics in their upset, personal attacks and anger don’t seem to be able to …”

    It is even more interesteing given that PLO repeatedly has said that the City cannot afford to maintain the inventory of existing City Parks and calls for the outsourcing of gardner sevices as a cost saving measure.

    I am interested in finding out how the City can suddenly “afford” to maintain the rails to trails land that we just acquired with the grant money.

    Maybe that is the source of some outrage here? I think there is another thread on the SJI blog dealing with the hypocrisy of government. Perhaps this is another example of it???