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.