For years the Valley Trail Initiative group has promoted the idea of a bike trail for Anderson Valley. Their efforts indeed received a major boost when Caltrans provided a $135,000 grant to conduct a “feasibility study.” Last November the Mendocino Council of Governments and (Portland-based) Alta Planning and Design (the Oakland office) which specializes in bike trails) conducted a series of community “listening sessions” and a follow-up workshop. On March 27, 2014, the preliminary report for a proposed 51-mile trail along Highway 128, from Cloverdale to Highway 1 on the Mendocino Coast, was made public. The deadline for public comments was June 8. The draft report, presented on March 27, 2014, was attended by 47 local residents and bike trail proponents.
Reached by phone, Melissa Meador, of Valley Trails Coalition, and lead member of the project’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG), comments that great progress is being made. She stated that the objective is to build a 51-mile trail. This is a “pleasure project for people who want an alternative to driving,” she gushed. Ms. Meador is a strong supporter of the project, a cheerleader one might say. She believes that the only question is not if it is going to be done, but when. It is presumed that everyone wants the trail as it is envisioned by local bike enthusiasts. That is, it is wanted whether or not it is feasible or practical. The only question advocates appear to entertain is when, not how much, how long, or the cost.
And there is the rub.
We are all aware that we now live in a consultancy- and planning-saturated political and economic present. If any group wants something badly enough, the first step is to obtain a grant for the purpose of conducting a “feasibility study.” In this case, Caltrans selected Valley Trails Coalition’s application from literally hundreds of proposals and awarded $135,000 for a preliminary feasibility study. Why did Caltrans put up this money? Caltrans builds roads, and, by extension, bike paths. Proponents were ecstatic. It is indeed a boost to their plan that Caltrans has in effect “signed on” to the conceptual idea of building it. However, therein lies a cautionary tale, one that has been glossed over and should give everyone pause. Has anyone involved with this project asked the one critical question that must be considered? Should the project go forward in part or as a whole? In speaking with a number of “stakeholders,” I found that this question appears never to have entered their deliberations. Why? Should not a “feasibility study” include such question? The question of including all possible segments, of course, was necessary, as MCOG’s stated mission is to be “responsible for preparing the Regional Transportation Plan, and funded projects are to be consistent with the plan.” After all, Mr. Phil Dow of MCOG makes the point that even though a 51 mile trail may be unlikely, that question had to be considered as part of the study, lest later on people ask why one segment or another was not included.
The term “feasibility” is routinely used by consultants and planners. Who among us, on hearing the term asks: What is meant by “feasibility study”? For planners and proponents it is a document to describe a “preliminary” roadmap of how, when, and for how much. After all, that is what consulting and planning is all about, determining how, when and how much. The rest is secondary, just details. Seldom does a “feasibility study” consider whether or not the project in question should be built. It may provide some insights for modification and identify obstacles, but it is not a document that considers the wisdom of the project, in part or whole. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines feasibility as “Capable of being done, practicability.” Clearly, in the case of the trail concept, the “feasibility study” is overwhelmingly concerned with capability, but not the practicability part. No one can deny that Caltrans is capable of building any kind of trail. They have the bulldozers, the heavy equipment, and the person-power to achieve virtually any construction project they set their energies to. If one doubts that, ask those who opposed the Willits Bypass Project for over 30 years. Caltrans is capable of overcoming any concerns or objections for the practicability of any project. Caltrans had the money and swept aside all obstacles, including every objection to the project as it was ultimately conceived. Caltrans wanted it their way and built it their way. (In this case, the phrase “my way or the highway” were one and the same.) Those who supported a more modest project in scope and cost were swept aside.
Before the reader concludes that this writer has a bias, that he is against the Valley Trails project, consider this: I do believe there is merit. The idea of a trail for Segments 3 and 4 specifically makes sense. I remember my first bike — a red Schwinn with big tires, a front basket for books, and a bell on the handle bar. Oh, how I liked to ride! There are benefits to a well-designed and well-constructed trail linking Boonville to Philo, with access to Hendy Woods, schools, and other venues along the Route 128 corridor. The preliminary report clearly demonstrates that there are far fewer geologic, environmental, and implementation concerns to overcome. If Class 1 design standards are to be the guide, segments 3 and 4 appear to be the only ones that meet “practicability” criteria. As proponents readily admit, this is where most people in the project area live and where the need is most clearly identified. During the scoping sessions, many people voiced their support for precisely this part of the proposed trail and tacitly admitted that the other segments simply did not make a lot of sense. As a community centered project, it is segments 3 and 4 which will be most used.
Perhaps there are a number of serious or competitive bike enthusiasts who want a challenging 51-mile trail. However, that is not, by definition, a “community” based project. The Anderson Valley community might not need or want a 51 mile “challenge course” — and certainly not for $379 million and counting.
With respect to the four sessions that this writer attended during the listening and workshop phase, the image of the spandex outfitted bike enthusiast did not come up once. The potential user was always pictured as a local inhabitant and the recreational user/visitor. The most applied image was of “kids on bikes.” Why, then, did the preliminary “feasibility study” give so much attention to pull-out areas and parking for bikers? If the trail is to primarily benefit locals and visitors (say visitors to Hendy Woods or a local B&B) then it makes sense to stress that it will “get people out of their cars.” Nor was there word one of the potential for biking enthusiasts to co-opt use of the trail to the disadvantage of the pedestrian or jogger user. In Sonoma County, to cite but one example, Annadel Park, pedestrians routinely complain of being “run over” by bikers. They have all but given up using the park trail. There are many such examples.
Ultimately, large portions of any rural trail, certainly one 51 miles long, could not conceivably be used by or be of benefit to most local residents, let alone visitors. In contrast, the idea of a bike and pedestrian trail focused on the central area of Anderson Valley makes sense and deserves serious consideration. Both bike riders and pedestrians deserve a place to recreate, to enjoy, and to experience such wonders as our local environment provides.
It was in light of the expressed need for a bike trail that the Mendocino Council of Governments applied to Caltrans for a grant. It was to consider the feasibility of a 51 mile bike and pedestrian trail. However, there has to date been no serious discussion of limiting the scope of the initiative to what is practicable, let alone what should be built in the first place. Nor did the Valley Trail Initiative consider competing priorities within Mendocino County. The amount of money for trails is finite. Other communities in the county also need to develop trails. But the study in hand understandably focuses only on Anderson Valley. One does not need to look far to see the need for more trails. Point Arena needs a 10 mile trail to attract visitors to the California Coastal National Monument. Fort Bragg hopes to develop a 10 mile trail that includes the former Georgia Pacific property. There are at least a dozen modest proposals currently being considered in half a dozen communities in Mendocino County. Is it wise, therefore to promote a $379 million project (the “preliminary” estimate) that could co-opt all of the available funding?
It is widely accepted that virtually every construction project, especially those spanning 10 or 20 years, cost more than what was originally proposed. A $379 million estimate can easily balloon into a much larger total cost. Trail proponents are quick to insist that the DOT (Department of Transportation) allocates funds for transportation that are not tax dollars. The funding source may indeed be one step removed from general taxes, such as gas taxes, but whatever monies Caltrans uses it has priorities to balance---roads, bridges, maintenance, and recreational projects, such as bike paths. The money inevitably comes from the pockets of citizens. At some point, everyone must consider what can be done with the money available, what is practicable to apply it to. Would a 51 mile bike path, costing anywhere near $400 million be practicable? Would it be a net good?
This analysis ends with a brief overview of three central observations: Segment 5: Cloverdale to Boonville, Segment 1: Navarro to Highway 1, and potential benefits of Segments 3 and 4.
Segment 5: Cloverdale to Boonville. This is the “hills and valleys” segment. It is the segment with the most challenges to configure due to a great deal of climbing and descending, with obvious bike-vehicle hazards to account for. Highway 128 motorists are well aware of the topography. The road standards are, by Caltrans definition “minimal.” This fact all but pre-empts it from serious consideration. There are few destination sites along this segment, excepting a handful of wineries. Is it surprising that the price tag for this one segment could be $278,781,000, in excess of 73% of the entire estimated cost of the five-segment project? Dare one suggest that if any part of the proposed trail has to be sacrificed to save the rest of it, jettison Segment 5? It might ultimately be characterized as a concession on the part of proponents. Perhaps it was never really a serious component to begin with. Without question, most people are not about to get in a car, travel miles to a pull-out, and ride or walk this segment. This does not get people out of their cars.
Segment 1: Navarro to Highway 1. This is the most scenic component of the proposed bike path. Fourteen miles of an incredibly pleasurable road, at modest speed, is currently available to motorists. It is the topography, the proximity of the Navarro River, and the magnificent redwoods, which are slowly recovering from a century of logging, that makes it so. Current uses include camping, fishing, boating, and more. These established uses would, to some degree, conflict with a bike path. The report acknowledges that any path, even a soft surface one, practicability speaking, would have to wind its way through the redwoods on the north side of the river, to the river edge in places, and be in sight of the road. There is but one paragraph in the entire report that mentions the potential harms to the environment — cutting of trees, sediment, soil compaction, erosion, and seasonal flooding that occasions high costs to repair and maintain. Other hazards include pollution to the river that is a “last ditch” refuge for the endangered coho salmon and steelhead. Many “locals” support efforts to restore the salmon and steelhead to the Navarro, which has not seen a good fishing season since 1982. Many “locals” want the 660 acre strip of redwoods not only preserved but returned to old-growth characteristics. Greg Giusti (UC-Berkeley forest expert) has pointed out, though not specifically for this report, that the promotion of old-growth characteristics along this 14 mile segment is an important consideration. It may be that the estimate for Segment 5 grossly underestimates the cost of building a trail that does not sacrifice the environment for what has been described as a “pleasure” trail. For the present, the low estimate is $18,938,000 for 14 miles of trail. Even the Upper Valley segment, roughly the same distance and no more challenging topographically, might cost $62,667,000 by estimate. If the objective is to develop this segment at any cost, “mitigating” harm, then by all means, keep the estimate low at the outset and face reality later on. Who believes that mitigation works? Those concerned with the Willits Bypass Project can speak volumes on this subject. If there is any one segment to which one should apply the dictum “First, Do No Harm,” it is the Navarro River to Highway 1 component.
Core Segments 3 and 4: By all reasonable measures, these two segments represent the core of the project. The total cost estimates are about $20 million, about 5% of the $379 million projection. The engineering challenges are minimal, compared to the other three segments. The center of gravity, population 2500, and “destinations” (Hendy Woods, Boonville, retail outlets, schools, and wineries) is here. By contrast, Navarro has about 170 residents and Cloverdale to Boonville has maybe 400. The feasibility report makes a strong case for developing a bike-pedestrian trail for Anderson Valley. To apply the meaning of “feasibility” to this segment meets the criteria of capability and practicability.
It is time for the community at large to speak up, not just the proponents of the initiative. Every community has bike and pedestrian needs that should also be recognized and taken into account in the competition for limited funding resources. This county needs many points of light, not simply a single megaproject that alone shines. If we are, as many want to believe, like a big family, the Mendocino Community, then we all need to ride and walk the talk. The money to build trails is limited. No single community should get all the love and all the resources.
As the above analysis of the preliminary draft report by Alta Planning makes clear, the question of should was not taken into account. If even a rudimentary, and well-constructed questionnaire had been created and administered to local citizens beforehand, a good deal of money would have been saved and a practical scope of the project identified at the outset. The Valley Trails project would have been spared the perhaps illusory hope that a $379 million dollar project in Mendocino County for a bike trail is feasible by any reasonable measure. But, as is often the case, we live in a time when nothing, it seems, can happen without the long drawn out process of applying for grants, selecting consultants, “scoping sessions,” “workshops,” preliminary studies, years of planning, engineering studies, more workshops, the search for full funding, the EIR permitting, and more, and at the same time ignoring obvious complicating factors. All and more of these steps, of course, take years to complete before so much as a surveyor’s stake is planted or spade of earth turned over. It must be recognized that the surprise meter would register a far different reaction to a $20 million project than to a $379 million and counting one.