WatchSonoma Watch

Healdsburg urges use of rail bridge for cyclists, pedestrians



Healdsburg’s City Council is urging rail officials to allow an unused railroad bridge over the Russian River to be employed as a temporary bicycle and pedestrian crossing,

Healdsburg’s Memorial Bridge, slated for repairs, in the background, and the railroad bridge, overhead and left. (PD FILE, 2008)

but the possible resumption of freight train service may derail the proposal.

The City Council on Monday agreed to petition the North Coast Railroad Authority to authorize use of the bridge as a pedestrian and bike detour during next year’s rehabilitation of the nearby Healdsburg Avenue bridge.

But Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., which last year began operating cargo trains in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties after a 10-year hiatus, is opposed, citing plans to resume freight service to Healdsburg next year.

“The wild card in this whole thing is whether the freight operator will allow this to go forward,” Public Works Director Mike Kirn told the City Council.

Some council members expressed skepticism whether freights trains will begin running, given the repairs needed to the railroad bridge.

“When you see the condition of that bridge, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” City Councilman Shaun McCaffery said.

But he acknowledged it likely will be “a tough time” trying to obtain use of the span for pedestrians and bicyclists when the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge is out of commission.

“I still feel this is very important. We need to explore every possibility until it’s clear there’s no alternative,” Councilman Tom Chambers said before the meeting.

“The issue is one of access for both pedestrians and cyclists. It’s our obligation to do everything we can to find a solution,” he said.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Agency, which owns the tracks and the bridge south of Healdsburg, does not plan to run passenger trains across the river for several more years. City officials said SMART is receptive to allowing the bridge as an alternate pedestrian crossing.

But freight trains are a different story.

NWP Co. leases the railroad line from NCRA, the public agency that oversees freight service on the historic route.

Freight trains now run about twice a week as far north as Windsor. But NWP intends to make $1.3 million worth of rail and bridge repairs for five miles farther north to Healdsburg and to haul freight there by next December, NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner said in an interview. He did not attend the meeting.

A joint operating agreement “clearly gives the freight train operator the right to run freight trains,” Stogner said. “As a practical matter, our board is not going to overrule the operator on this.”

He said it does not seem feasible from a safety standpoint to allow pedestrians and trains on the bridge at the same time.

City officials are planning to close Memorial Bridge to all traffic, including cars, bicycles and pedestrians, for a major rehabilitation of the 91-year-old span that likely will get under way in July. Kirn said the bridge probably will be closed to all traffic around next November and will not reopen until January 2015.

Motorized vehicles will be able to use the Highway 101 bridge downstream as an alternate.

But for cyclists and pedestrians, closing the Memorial Bridge leaves them with no easy way to cross the river. The closest alternative is riding 10 miles out Westside Road to Wohler Bridge near Forestville.

Bike store owners, cyclists and members of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition have urged the City Council to find another crossing while the Memorial Bridge is closed.

One option is to allow cyclists on the shoulder of Highway 101 bridge, but city officials have been reluctant to pursue that because of safety and liability issues.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com

6 Responses to “Healdsburg urges use of rail bridge for cyclists, pedestrians”

  1. R. B. Fish says:

    @ Phil. Many thanks for the clarification. I understand the situation faced by those on the east and south side during construction renovation. However, these inconveniences happen all the time and those affected such prepare and schedule for those inconveniences. It’s not forever and apparently the renovation has been directed by the will of the Healdsburg community. I am very much in favor of historic preservation when truly warranted.If the train bridge is still going to be utilized to conduct intended business it should not be modified unless the modification is permanent. Furthermore, I would be in favor of a new pedistrian/bicyle bridge between the east and west areas. But where and who pays is the question. Currently there is no urgent community need and clearly no funds in the immediate future to support such a venture. Again thanks for the clarification.

  2. Phil Maher says:

    @RB Fish-

    Elise is right. There are only three other crossings on the river that would have to serve as alternates to Memorial Bridge during construction if crossing that railroad trestle is not allowed:

    1) Highway 101
    2) Wohler Bridge
    3) Alexander Valley Rd.

    Personally, I’m not generally a big fan of spending money when easier and cheaper solutions can be found, but I am in favor of preserving the old bridge. If one of the alternatives made sense, fine, but they just don’t from either a functional or safety standpoint. It’s not only recreational uses that would be affected. No local bridge means no local access to town from the south and east for anyone but motorists that can already use 101. Cars do comprise the bulk of the travel that takes place on South Healdsburg Ave/Old Redwood Hwy, but it would just plain suck for everyone else.

  3. R. B. Fish says:

    @ Elise.

    “Many Healdsburgers live just outside the city limits and need to enter on Healdsburg Avenue, and not with a full day’s march to Wohler bridge and back to town!”

    Are you telling this audience that you and others who live on the east side of Healdsburg across from the Russian River that if you walk or bicyle to town you have to walk to the Wohler Bridge to get to Healdsburg Plaza area..a distance of 20 miles.Do you actually walk/bicycle that route? Please inform us.

  4. Elise Villemaire says:

    If we cannot claim a freedom of movement, what can we claim? There is nothing leftist or rightist in walking or cycling from place to place. Many Healdsburgers live just outside the city limits and need to enter on Healdsburg Avenue, and not with a full day’s march to Wohler bridge and back to town!

    Another important issue is the use of Memorial Beach, which many in-town Healdsburgers access by foot and depend on the bridge. This would be impossible for all the children and families that currently do not drive.

    An accessible pedestrian/bicycle bridge is a prerequisite for this multi-year project.

  5. Phil Maher says:

    This idea makes absolute and perfect sense. The alternative of allowing cyclists and pedestrians on 101 is insane…a catastrophe waiting to happen, especially as the shoulder narrows and the highway blindly curves right as you get closer to the Central Healdsburg exit. Freight trains employ conductors and brakemen on board, always. In days of old (and I’m assuming it’s still the case)these personnel would walk ahead of the train to clear the way of obstacles, flag at dangerous crossings, and advise the engineer as the train proceeded slowly ahead. For the short duration of the Memorial Bridge repairs, with only a few minutes of time required, twice a week, there’s no reason that NWP can’t easily and safely do it in this case, too. Anything less in the interests of safety, function and community spirit should be unacceptable to anyone. As a matter of fact, I would be willing to wager that Nu Forest Products and any wineries planning on using rail service to ship their products would completely agree.

  6. Nora Gonzales says:

    How much taxpayer money would go into rehabing the railroad bridge for the comparatively few walkers and bike riders who would use the bridge.

    Where are the spending priorities? We need our roads fixed. That should be the top and first priority, not an old bridge for recreational use.

    This is more madness from the leftist politicans who run this county. They still think the piggy bank is full. They ought to be worried about their employee pension crisis, the public debt and our deplorable roads which in too many cases are unsafe to drive on or for that matter, ride a bike on.