Tuolumne County bike paths

A proposal for creating designated bicycle routes on or next to existing railroad grades that would connect Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia was approved in early December by members of the Tuolumne County Transportation Council.

The Sierra Railroad Trail proposal, with estimated costs of $6.9 million, is part of a regional plan to promote safe bicycle travel for bicycle tourism and economic development in Tuolumne, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Calaveras and Alpine counties.

The plan is to create a multi-use trail along the Sierra Railroad right-of-way between Jamestown and Sonora, proposed to start at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. Project proponents tout “ample parking for those who wish to park and bike” at the state park, which is already an existing tourism destination.

From Jamestown, the rail corridor curves behind residential neighborhoods and wooded areas, and crosses over Highway 108 before intersecting with Symons Lane and South Washington Street near Grocery Outlet. Washington Street connects bicyclists to Stockton Road and existing multi-use trails at Dragoon Gulch. It includes expanding access for bicyclists on multiple existing roads in Columbia.

Darin Grossi, executive director with the TCTC, said Tuesday in a phone interview that the proposal is a concept in its planning stages. There’s no timeline or budgeting set out for the project yet, and there will be limited funding available.

However, the idea for bicycle trails that are separate from motor vehicle routes in the Mother Lode has already gained traction with bicycling advocates in Tuolumne County.

Rob Williams, a resident of Valley Springs, is chairperson of the Motherlode Bicycle Coalition that represents bicyclists in four counties and a consultant outreach manager with the California Bicycle Coalition. He’s been helping Cole Przybyla, the innovation and business assistance director for Tuolumne County, with the Sierra Railroad Project.

Williams said he’s been pursuing a Rails to Trails project in Tuolumne County for three years, and he helped Przybyla write one innovative concepts grant application to Caltrans in July.

“We didn’t get funded, but we’re working on another grant with the federal Economic Development Agency,” Williams said. “They’re awarding money for projects to increase tourism and outdoor recreation.”

Przybyla said his understanding that the original Rails to Trails project idea came from the people who run the Sierra Railroad back in 2004. A report on the concept was paid for by the railroad, but the project stalled when it went to the Board of Supervisors at the time, Przybyla said.

Williams and Przybyla helped set up a meeting in October with Mike Hart, the chief executive officer and president of Sierra Railroad and the Sierra Northern Railway Co. that owns it. In that meeting, Williams and Przybyla said in separate interviews that Hart stated, “You can have our easement.”

The proposed concept for a bicycle trail is a benefit for multiple reasons, including getting people outside, economic development, and a tourism attraction for bicyclists from all over California, Przybyla said, and it’s a commuter option, “a multi-modal option” for getting around the county.

The next step, Grossi and Przybyla said, is a feasibility study that includes engineering plans, to talk about pathways, how to fund the project, and to seek community outreach and understand how the rest of the community sees such a project.

“The main point is what Darin said, right now this is just a concept,” Przybyla said. “We’re looking to pursue this as a collaborative effort, to see how this could come to fruition in the next few years. This is a concept that is absolutely feasible, based on the state’s interest in funding projects that result in fewer vehicle miles traveled, VMT. I personally would love the opportunity to ride a bike from Sonora to Jamestown.”

People can legally ride bicycles on most public roads in California wherever they want to, excluding interstate freeways. Whether those roads are suitable for recreational cyclists depends on many variables, including road widths and shoulders, and whether those shoulders are paved.

Riding bikes in Sonora and elsewhere in Tuolumne County can be challenging because, though traffic is comparatively light compared to major metropolitan urban areas and real cities, many roads are too narrow for cyclists to safely share roadways with motor vehicles.

Brent Carkeet, owner at Sonora Cyclery on Mono Way, sells bicycles, services bicycles, and talks to bicyclists every day his business is open and on his days off. He understands how bicyclists think and what they want in Tuolumne County.

“I’ve been here five years coming from the Bay Area,” Carkeet said Tuesday in a phone interview. “There’s more bike lanes and bike paths in the Bay Area. Coming up here, the amount of traffic volume is way less, and it feels better to me, even though there’s less in the way of bike lanes and bike paths.”

Nevertheless, there’s an overwhelming desire locally for more bike lanes and more bike-friendly paths, for family-friendly riding, so people don't have to worry about traffic, Carkeet said.

“I talk to so many riders who are afraid to ride downtown because of the traffic,” he said. “Being from the Bay Area, I’m OK with a lot of challenges, but sometimes it can feel more dangerous here.”

It can seem narrow, unaccommodating and intimidating to ride up here in Tuolumne County, Carkeet said, adding that there need to be designated paths everybody can use and ride miles without worrying about sharing the roads with cars.

“Really, the only thing we have right now is the old railroad grades,” he said. “The main one everybody likes is off Middle Camp Road out to Lyons Dam. It’s a great run, user-friendly for everybody, the whole family can get into it. There’s a huge demand for more of that. Something like this that would go from here to Jamestown would be just phenomenal.

Lisa Mayo, president and CEO of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, said the number one priority to start a road biking program is safety, and it’s hard for her agency to recommend where people can safely go road bicycling. That’s one reason her agency has photos of people mountain biking in Tuolumne County, but no photos of people on road bikes, she said.

“When I was a kid, I used to ride by myself from two miles out Italian Bar Road to Lime Kiln, Wards Ferry, and all over that area and back home,” she said. “That is not something I would recommend today.”

Promoting safe bicycling and bicycling tourism is definitely something that the visitors bureau can get behind, Mayo said. This type of destination development benefits residents who may need to get from Point A to Point B for work or school, and it can be recreational and healthy for them, she said.

Mountain biking is very popular in the Central Sierra, and the success of the Groveland Trailheads project in Groveland is very indicative of that, Mayo said.

“For visitors, bicycling can be a fun way to get to know a town, because you can stop when needed/wanted to read historical markers, check out great scenery or grab a roadside picnic,” she said. “It also provides a healthy aspect to their travel, and it’s all done in the great outdoors, which is more popular than ever!”

The TCTC has six seats, currently taken by county supervisors Kathleen Haff and Ryan Campbell, city council members Jim Garaventa and Colette Such, and Gregoria Ponce, chief of rural planning with Caltrans District 10. A citizen-at-large seat on the council is vacant.

The TCTC is responsible for developing transportation improvements that reflect needs, concerns and actions of all government agencies, including tribal governments, in the Tuolumne County region. The council’s goals include contributing to the region's mobility, economic health and environmental quality.  

The council also manages resources of the separate Tuolumne County Transportation Agency and other various advisory councils that are supposed to play a role in the future of transportation in Tuolumne County.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.