THE PRESS DEMOCRAT   July 11, 2002



Pedestrians and bicyclists would course through Healdsburg with little interference from automobile traffic under the City Council's plan to convert railroad right of way into a multiuse trail. The trail, the first of its kind in Sonoma County, would run alongside the Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks and Foss Creek for three miles, starting south of Alexander Valley Road and passing through downtown. It would end at Front Street, where a bike route would continue across the Healdsburg Avenue bridge over the Russian River, to the southern city limits.

With its proximity to residential neighborhoods, schools and retail areas, the project would serve as the backbone of the city's trail system, said Councilwoman Leah Gold. ``It's been a dream for a very long time,'' said Gold, who categorized it as one of council's top 10 priorities. The project would not interfere with plans to eventually return the Northwest Pacific Railroad to freight and passenger traffic, according to an $8,000 feasibility study recently presented to the City Council by consultant Jim Jacobson Associates.

The Northwestern Pacific line, formed in the early 1900s through the consolidation of six separate lines, was closed by federal regulators in 1998. The line is now owned by the North Coast Railroad Authority, which was created in 1992 to purchase and manage the 300 of miles track between Schellville and Arcata. Officials from the railroad authority could not be reached for comment.

The track's right-of-way is about 100 feet wide -- enough room for both trains and trail. However, some adjacent property owners have encroached into the railroad right-of-way, the feasibility study reported. ``We don't see the obstacles as insurmountable,'' said Planning Director Richard Spitler. ``It will obviously take some cooperation with the railroad and adjacent landowners.''

In May, the Healdsburg City Council authorized a $50,000 environmental impact study and implementation plan for the project. City officials said they hope to break ground as early as next year. The project is expected to cost $3.4 million. Spitler said he anticipates securing state and federal funding for at least 80 percent of that. ``There seems to be a lot of money for this sort of thing,'' he said. ``So we're optimistic.''

The project could also include restoring Foss Creek through much of downtown, where the seasonal waterway flows through underground culverts. ``We would have to seek other funds to daylight a creek,'' Spitler said. ``But we'll look into that.'' 

The project also fits into regional plans for the Northwest Pacific Railroad. The Sonoma County Transit Authority's bicycle plan, adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1997, called for studies to evaluate the possibility of trails sharing the railroad's right-of-way. Marin and Mendocino counties have floated similar proposals. ``It's just another step in being as bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly as we can be, which I think is a very worthwhile goal,'' said City Councilwoman Gold.