Contra Costa County supervisors are praising a study of how the Iron Horse Regional Trail in Central County can better host long-distance bicycle commuting while still safely catering to slower-moving walkers and joggers.

The Iron Horse Corridor Active Transportation Study, which supervisors accepted earlier this month, lays out some ways the trail can be more commuter-friendly.

Among the proposals are separating the faster bicycle traffic from slower walkers and joggers to make the trail safer for all users; improving trail access to BART stations and other area trails; possible installation of overpasses at some higher-traffic street intersections now guarded by traffic signals; improving trail lighting, and, in general, “reduce user conflicts.”

Jamar Stamps, a principal planner with the county’s Department of Conservation and Development, told the supervisors that specific projects haven’t yet been designed. But he said the plan is for the trail to be split into approximately 15 “design segments,” with two or three suggested projects on each segment.

Supervisor Candace Andersen of Danville said it will ultimately be up to the cities through which the trail runs, perhaps in partnership with other agencies, to evaluate, design and find money for each project.

From rails to trails

The Iron Horse Regional Trail stretches about 30 miles, starting at Marsh Drive just south of state Highway 4 in Concord and running through Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Alamo, Danville and San Ramon to the Alameda County line, and a few miles farther south into Dublin and Pleasanton.

Most of the trail south of Monument Boulevard in Concord is on a former Southern Pacific rail line that hosted trains from 1891 until 1977. The first trail segments on this corridor opened in 1986.

Though there have been discussions at various times since then about possible conversion of parts of the trail into a rail or bus transit route, none of that came to fruition. Andersen said this month that such plans weren’t feasible economically, and have been overwhelmingly unpopular with people living near the trail.

The 2019 passage of Assembly Bill 1025, which essentially relinquished the right to turn the trail route into a mass-transit corridor, has ensured rails can’t return to the trail.

There will be “no restoring it back to the days of the Southern Pacific,” Andersen said.

Instead, the goal of this study is to determine whether the trail can practically be improved for better “active transportation” uses, including commuter bicycling, as well as e-bikes and e-scooters.

Stamps said, though, that the use of “shared autonomous vehicles” might one day be practical on trail segments near job centers in San Ramon (mainly the Bishop Ranch business park) and Walnut Creek. That, he said, would require some specific trail modifications.

Two years in the making

Planning for this report has been underway for almost two years. Public opinion had been gathered at several Bike to Work Day stations and other “in-person engagement events,” and from January through August 2019 via a web-based mapping tool, through which more than 400 comments about trail uses were registered. Presentations have been hosted by the Danville Town Council and the Alamo Municipal Advisory Council.

This month, David Schonbrunn, president of the Train Riders Association of California, told the supervisors that, with AB 1025, they had blown a chance to make at least the San Ramon section of the Iron Horse Trail into part of a planned Tri-Valley San Joaquin Regional Rail Authority “Valley Link” commuter rail route connecting Lathrop and Dublin-Pleasanton BART.

“Your board caved in to the NIMBYs and their short-term thinking,” Schonbrunn said.

That isn’t how Andersen sees it.

“We want (the trail) to keep its wonderful charm, but at the same time utilize its ability for people to go up and down the trail without running into one another, and to get to and from work or school,” she said.