May 08, 2011

My turn: Tear down the El Dorado County Courthouse

Special to the Democrat

If the county of El Dorado would tear down the historical Main Street, Placerville, Courthouse it could sell the building material and build a new trail. Does this sound crazy to you? Well Ñ this is essentially what a few well intended but misdirected individuals have proposed to the Board of Supervisors in suggesting that the county tear out the 122-year-old Placerville Branch of the Sacramento Valley Railroad to speed up the building of a trail.
Not a trail for equestrians, or a mountain bike trail, but only a paved trail. And what is more disturbing is that the supervisors have entertained this presentation, whereby this group would take control of public assets owned by all county taxpayers, then turn them over to a commercial salvage enterprise. The salvage company would haul off these assets for their profit; some estimates suggest that the value of the rail could exceed $1 million.
Now you might be thinking that I donÕt see the need for a multi-use trail system in El Dorado County. I am a regular user of the Forni Road to Missouri Flat trail. I have observed the number of people who use this trail on a daily basis, and I believe that I have a reasonable understanding of who these people are and what they are doing. The overwhelming majority of trail users are walkers and joggers, who travel between one and four miles per day. I see an occasional bicycle, and once in a great while a horse will pass by.
While on the trail, I have talked with many of the trail users and I often ask them the same question: Does the trail have to be flat, in a straight line, or could it run with the lie of the land and meander along the railroad track? The answer is nearly always the same: It just doesnÕt matter as long as we have a place to walk and ride.
In 1991 the county of El Dorado, city of Folsom, county of Sacramento, and Regional Transit formed a Joint Powers Authority for the purpose of purchasing the Placerville Branch of the Sacramento Valley Railroad from the Southern Pacific Company. This allowed the preservation of the railroad right of way as a transportation corridor. However, prior to the purchase the Southern Pacific Company had removed the mainline rail between Missouri Flat Road and the city of Placerville.
In 2003 the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors approved the Sacramento-Placerville Transportation Corridor Master Plan. This plan was written over a two year period with input from a steering committee of local residents and advocacy groups interested in multiple uses of the trail, including excursion rail based programs, hiking, equestrian use and bicycling.
The master plan is specific about preserving the historical aspects of the corridor, and with great detail defines how trails will co-exist with rail operations on the corridor that is between 60 and 200 feet wide and 28 miles long.
During the planning process five public meetings were held at varying locations throughout the county to give the public input into the process. This master plan remains in effect as approved; the countyÕs Transportation Master Plan and Bicycle Circulation Plan also reflect the same statements regarding use of the corridor.
In 2009 the Board of Supervisors approved the concept plan for the construction and development of the El Dorado County Historic Railroad Park in the town of El Dorado. The Railroad Park would then be operated by the El Dorado County Museum for the purpose of displaying and operating a collection of railroad artifacts, by utilizing the former Placerville Branch line to provide a living history program. Riders would then relive the experience of rail transportation as it was from 1888 until passenger service ended in the 1950s.
The El Dorado County Historical Museum is operated by the county with one employee and a large contingent of dedicated volunteers who conduct tours, perform archive work and perform restoration of the historic rail artifacts at the museumÕs shop on Placerville Drive. All restoration work has been funded through private donations.
In June of this year I contacted Supervisor Jack Sweeney on behalf of the County Historical Museum where I have been a volunteer for the past 21 years. I asked Supervisor Sweeney to consider a resolution allowing the Museum to begin operating its rail based equipment between Mother Lode Drive (Mother Lode Y) and Missouri Flat Road. This would facilitate the re-certification of the track at no cost to the county taxpayers. In addition, the resolution designated the Museum administrator as the countyÕs representative to oversee the Railroad Park and Living History Railroad operation, thereby streamlining the process of access and development through efficient county administration. The resolution was requested on behalf of all those who frequently come to our MuseumÕs Engine House and ask, ÒWhen will it run, and when can I ride?Ó
During the Board of Supervisors meeting where the resolution was presented, Supervisor Sweeney was accused by members of the bicycle group of trying to slip something in below the radar, to sneak in a plan to which the public had not commented. The theme was to request more studies, take more time, and send the resolution before the Trails Advisory Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission. They stated they have their own options, and they must be considered negotiators in these county matters. All of this regardless of the fact that the county Department of Transportation has grant funding pending to design and build a new paved and natural trail parallel to the tracks!
Well, I donÕt have a college degree but I do know a few things. I know that in order to operate a train, we must have two rails, and the rails must be continuous from beginning to end. I also know that if the tracks are removed it will be cost prohibitive to ever put them back, so when the trails (bicycle) people tell me that we have to negotiate for the use of the railroad I have wonder what they mean: Do we modify our equipment to use just one rail? Do we remove just some of the tracks? Do we remove it from the ends or from the middle? Do we get enough to move the train forward and backward? According to our bike folks, we just need 40 feet of old track and a rusty locomotive in El Dorado for kids to play on. Oh, by the way Ñ the supervisors have stated that they do not want to remove the track. They just want to make sure that all the recreational venues are provided for on behalf of our entire community.
So let me recap. We have a contiguous, operable railroad system that runs from Missouri Flat Road to the city of Folsom. Excepting two minor locations west of Shingle Springs, the track is in exceptionally good condition. The transportation corridor averages 100 feet wide, more than sufficient to build a Class 1 paved trail, a distinct equestrian trail, and a mountain bike single track, while retaining the historical railroad as is stated in all of the countyÕs transportation documents. As mentioned, a grant has been applied for by El Dorado County to develop the trails adjacent to the tracks from Missouri Flat Road to El Dorado and for the development of the Railroad Park. This would provide the township of El Dorado with this communityÕs first park, and trails will continue west as sequential grants are awarded.
Please join me in calling/writing your supervisor and ask what he or she can do to further protect and support the historical Placerville Branch line. Please do not obstruct this project by placing further unnecessary delays to study what has already been studied at taxpayer expense. DonÕt be persuaded to tear down and sell off our historical legacy and community artifacts ala yard sale bartering. All recreational corridor venues deserve our countyÕs best planning and we should stick to the established, approved plan.
Edward Cunha has been a volunteer with the El Dorado County Museum for 21 years.
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