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Cyclists Turn Attention to Alto Tunnel

With Cal Park Tunnel drawing largely rave reviews, attention shifts to the potentially costly Alto Tunnel.

Julia's first trip through the Cal Park Hill Tunnel recently was also one of her first bicycle rides. She had a little trouble staying upright, but that didn't erase the smile on her face.

The numbers are still coming in, but the newly-opened path from Larkspur to San Rafael seems to be a hit with a lot of cyclists in the area. Finally, they have a way to cross between the cities without worrying about cars.

"People are seeing what can be constructed in Marin. The Cal Park Tunnel is a state-of-the-art project," said Kim Baenisch, executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. "People are discovering it's more enjoyable to walk or ride on these routes. As we expand the bike network, there are more opportunities to choose to bicycle."

Other opportunities could be waiting in the wings after this recent success. The push to reopen Alto Tunnel remains on the coalition's long-term agenda.

The half-mile Alto Tunnel was built in 1884 by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and connected Corte Madera and Mill Valley until it was sealed in 1971. Cyclists riding from Corte Madera can challenge steep and winding Camino Alto or take the Horse Hill bike route that follows part of Highway 101 to reach Mill Valley.

"It's a good workout," said Peter Ryan after a ride over Camino Alto. "It gets a little wild. You certainly have to watch out for cars. I don't know about the tunnel, but it sounds interesting."

Marin County is one of four test communities under the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program, which is designed to show the effects of increased walking and cycling on personal health and air pollution. The county receives $25 million over a four-year period through the program.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors examined a study in September that suggested 1.85 million people annually would use the Alto Tunnel. A preliminary price tag for the project was estimated at $40-50 million.

"There's a huge constituency that wants to open the Alto Tunnel. We fill the board meetings whenever we have discussions about that," Supervisor Steve Kinsey said. "I think we all believe it would be a good investment. But is it the right time? Is it a priority?"

Reopening the tunnel would likely require significant work, considering a partial collapse in 1981, which was quickly stabilized. There are also questions about the bike traffic and the structural stability from property owners who live on the hill.

"The homeowners are a force that need to be respected and their needs have to be addressed," Kinsey said.

Mick Orton March 09, 2011 at 04:08 PM
It is assanine in this economic climate to consider building a tunnel that studies show way more people will use than will actually take it. Bicyclists like the challenge of using the hills so the number of potential users is over estimated.
P Mac March 09, 2011 at 04:51 PM
Absolutely NOT. The tunnel poses significant problems for the neighbors of Scott Valley and compromises their properties and the neighborhood. I am not sure why the Bicycle Coalition seems to feel entitled to their property. My question has always been, "Why wouldn't that $40 - $50 million be put into improving the two routes that already exist? Both Camino Alto and the path along Horse Hill are perfect choices and I can't imagine that upgrading these two already existing options would cost anything close to what the Alto Tunnel would cost. It just seems like a "no brainer" to me.
David Chittenden March 10, 2011 at 01:02 AM
We love Marin. We love the outdoors However we also want our politicians to be fiscally responsible. There are too many higher priority items to fix before spending more than $ 50 Million on this tunnel. If the bicycle folks really want this lets see some green from them.
DALSF May 18, 2011 at 09:01 PM
This tunnel is nothing short of insane and pushed through by politicans who want the vote of that demographic when they run again; Bicyclists have HIGH demographics, meaning money for campaign warchests and influence. How many homes could that money have saved from foreclosure? Probably every one in Marin. How many children could have help with college tuition from that money? Or providing housing for our aging population. This is a sad state of affairs. As for "estimating" that 100,000+ "could" use the bike path each year, sure they "could," but will they. My guess is 2,000 people per year will use that. Talk about irresponsibility!
Rico May 20, 2011 at 12:31 AM
I agree, the money should be spent on much more important things like you mentioned and then some. I don't agree about giving it to people who have defaulted on their loans for housing though. If there is any extra money floating around, (and the $40 to $50 million for the Alto tunnel is very conservative, if have read reports that it would cost more like $60 to $70 million), it should be spent on things that benefit everyone. That $25 million of the special federal grant was for non-motorized transportation projects in Marin, but the MCBC and the SMART train people from Sonoma weasled millions for the Cal Park tunnel that was built to handle a train and bicycles. The Cal Park tunnel is only about a quarter mile long, is 25 feet wide and 13 feet is wasted on unused train tracks, with the bike path only 12 feet wide, and cost a little over $27 million. We should all take note of the waste of federal of federal and local tax money for the Cal Park tunnel scam., and be very wary of any more tunnel scams being pushed by the bicycle lobbyists. It would be very interesting to see how many bicyclists and pedestrians actually use the skinny path through the Cal Park tunnel, that would give us a perspective of cost benefits per dollar for each user. They claim "it seems to be a real hit with people", but I have a feeling if they were to reveal the true traffic counts, it would turn out to be quite an embarrassment to the MCBC and SMART.

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