Residents Call for Alto Tunnel to Remain Part of General Plan

Should the Alto Tunnel project be singled out in the Mill Valley General Plan? Voice your opinion in the comment section.

A program that specifically names the Alto Tunnel as part of a wider policy to “foster an interconnected transportation system” should remain in the Mobility Implementation Plan (see attached) section of the draft Mill Valley General Plan, several residents said during a public hearing last week.

“Alto Tunnel happens to be the kingpin for the whole bicycle county-wide plan,” said Elisabeth Thomas-Matej, a member of the Land Use and Mobility Working Group, which decided to include the project when passing on recommendations to the General Plan Advisory Committee.

But many GPAC members, including Burton Miller, a former member of the Planning Commission, said the Mill Valley General Plan was not the place to single something out.

“It’s very political, it’s very contentious, and I don’t know why anywhere in this document, for any project, we would call out one particular prospect,” Miller said.

The group met last week at the Mill Valley Community Center for a public hearing on Land Use and Mobility, which included a wide range of transportation initiatives incluidng traffic improvements, bicycle and pedestrian safety, regional coordination, and policies to reduce emissions.

The committee also delayed deliberations the Housing Element portion of the General Plan to January 15, and reviewed the Natural Environment and Community Vitality sections during a public hearing on Nov. 8 (watch the live broadcast). The committee is packaging all section of the plan together to create a draft plan which will then get passed on to the Planning Commission for a public hearing, tentatively set for March, and finally to the City Council for formal adoption by July.

The Alto Tunnel is mentioned in Program 9 under Policy 4 in the draft Mobility Implementation Plan. The program aims to “Support feasibility assessments for bicycle and pedestrian facilities, such as Alto Tunnel, that can provide safe and convenient connections between Mill Valley and the rest of Marin County.”

GPAC member Larry Davis said the working group went back and forth about specifically naming the Alto Tunnel, and ultimately decided "to keep it in to consider the feasibility of the project.”

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 currently traveling between Mill Valley and Corte Madera can take the Horse Hill bike route that follows part of Highway 101, or are faced with the steep, winding ride on Camino Alto.

Both route are dangerous, residents said, and the Alto Tunnel presents a safe, flat alternative. But the reconstruction required to reopen it would not be cheap, and would take a "some difficult, political action" said resident Don Herzog. 

"We've got to have the courage to do it," he said.

Based on a 2011 study, the Marin County Board of Supervisors estimates it would cost between $46 million and $60 million to reopen the tunnel. Some of that funding likely could go to ameliorate property owners who live on the hill above it.

"The homeowners are a force that need to be respected and their needs have to be addressed," Marin County Board of Supervisors President Steve Kinsey said in 2011. 

County officials estimate that between 850,000 and 1.85 million people would use the tunnel annually. Bike advocates, particularly the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, have been proponents for the project, and in 2011 gathered more than 2,500 signatures in support of the connector.

“I do think the Alto Tunnel needs to stay in this document,” said Doug Brown, a resident of Mill Valley’s Alto Sutton Manor neighborhood.

Resident and cyclist Jacelyn Zimmer agreed. 

“Someday we’re going to look back and wonder why we didn’t open the tunnel earlier,” she said. “Having a flat route from Corte Madera and back opens it up for everybody.”

What do you think? Do you support the Alto Tunnel? Should it be named inthe General Plan? Or is that not the place for it? Let us know in the comments.

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Rico December 13, 2012 at 04:02 PM
Great post John, Please continue when you have more time, and thank you for what you have done so far. It is obvious that some of the comments from people who blindly support the Alto tunnel rebuild really don't know much about the the proposal. To someone who doesn't have any idea of what's involved.It sounds great on paper. But when the facts are revealed about easements, the complexity and scope of work, the extremely high costs, the sacrifice of the residents who live near it and the amount of people that will use it, the idea doesn't make fiscal sense. I like your idea about improving the path over Horse Hill. Then pedestrians and cyclists would have 3 routes from southern to central Marin. I don't understand why some people are so enamored about walking or cycling through a half mile long tunnel ? I grew up here in Marin and used to ride my bike everywhere, and going up hills builds strong bodies 7 ways, and hiking on the trails makes for a healthy individual also, but I don't see any health benefits of hiking or cycling underground in a tunnel with no vegetation giving off oxygen, no natural lighting, piped in air and most importantly to me the fear of an earthquake while in a tunnel. The tunnel was built for electric trains that didn't spend much time in there. And, this tunnel would be mainly for recreational use, not many people would use it for shopping trips or going to school. How about these tunnel advocates pay for the feasibility study themselves ?
John December 13, 2012 at 05:44 PM
It's easy to be selfless about someone else's home. Our association is in favor of studying the idea, because we are confident that once the facts are known, the community will see that there are inexpensive and far less intrusive alternatives to better connect Corte Madera and Mill Valley while improving safety for all who use these routes.
Matt Bianco December 13, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Cal Park tunnel cost of re opening was $25 million, of which $18 million was construction cost. Cost of studies required by Mill Valley residents who are eternally in search of issues to take up, and the residents along this historic tracks who don't want to see riders/pedestrians near their home = $60 million - $25 million. Loss of value (someone with more patience should explain that to Ricardo) to riders, pedestrians, reduced tourist/weekend riders who visit the area, reduction of carbon for the handful who might use it for commute, etc, pun intended.... priceless.
John December 13, 2012 at 08:04 PM
It's interesting that we are able to present our case without calling those who disagree with us names, deriding their views, or attributing motives to them based on our interests. Why don't we all just deal with the issues and lay off the personal stuff?
Greg December 13, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Why don't you just turn the dirt fire road (all of 0.25 miles of it and complete with fire hydrants) running from Coach Rd. in Scott Valley/Mill Valley to Sausalito Rd in Corte Madera? Hell of a lot cheaper to do and just as effective!
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 09:57 PM
1. Bicycle pathways are amenities to communities, they drive real estate prices UP again and again... all one needs to do is look at Larkspur's Sandra Marker Trail or look at real estate literature nationwide. While you like to use the word "freeway" to create fear regarding bike/ped use on the path, we need to encourage non-motorized transportation here in Marin. We are a model for the nation for walking and bikeing and should continue to be so.
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 10:11 PM
If a community decides it wants a roadway, a freeway, a pathway a tunnel etc. it get's built. The Alto Tunnel would be a regional and countywide facility. All measures should be taken to accommodate neighbors, not question. But the wider Marin community needs to decide on this project not just the small number of people who have concerns (many legitimate) regarding the public use of this public right-of-way. Regarding deeds, In 2004 20 houses were demolished for the highway 101 freeway project- this was a tragic for families living there. How many homes will be harmed for this project? ZERO. The Mill Valley to Corte Madera Corridor Study indicates that soil under homes will be monitored during construction. If monitoring equipment were to see a change in millimeters, immediate measures would be taken to protect homes. The fear-bating about homes being harmed or families being displace has NO basis in truth but is un-informed conjecture. The true danger to homes is doing nothing. One house has already been lost do to not fixing the tunnel in 1982- The best way to protect these homes is to repair the tunnel.
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 10:24 PM
All of us are citizen tax payers by the way; a re-opened Alto Tunnel will have GREAT benefits to Marin's tax payers as does the Cal Park tunnel, which opened in Dec. 2010 between Larkspur and San Rafael. The Cal Park tunnel was also collapsed, it had wooden supports that have been replaced with steel.... it was reopened just fine. The fact that some people will use other routes is a specious argument. We don't fail to build new roads for cars because there is another route somewhere else. We build what we need for cars and we now have developed the wisdom to build what is needed for walking and biking too- there are sidewalks and bike lanes emerging throughout Marin these days- this is a great thing for ALL of us. What we are seeking with the tunnel is a flat route for all ages, all abilities to help to increased walking and biking here in Marin. Active transportation reduces auto congestion, increases the quality of life, and air quality, enhances health, reduced GHG's and helps to fight the national obesity epidemic that is costing over $350 BILLION per year.
Rico December 13, 2012 at 10:30 PM
Right on Greg ! That is the best idea yet, I don't understand why a few people are focused on the Alto tunnel. I can tell that you grew up in the area Greg, and probably ride your road bike to commute every day. I think most of the tunnel supporters did not grow up in Mill Valley and are not familiar with the area , they just look at maps and probably have never been in the Alto tunnel. There are also several other fire roads that go between Mill Valley and Larkspur-Corte Madera, one was paved when Camino Alto slid out in 1981, but the rest are unpaved, not really suitable for road bikes.
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 10:30 PM
We need to think out of the box on funding. Much of the funding that paid for Cal Park Tunnel came to Marin from funds that would have gone to other counties. Without that project we would have just another collapsed tunnel. Instead we now have a world-class, award-winning nonmotorized transportation facility that is totally safe and separate from cars. Do we want funds to build bike facility somewhere in North Dakota (for example) or do you want to build a world-class bike/ped facility here in Marin for this and many future generations. Like it or not, transportation dollars will be spent somewhere in this country. WE can influence whether or not they are spent here in Marin.
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Neil- Not soon enough ;o)
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 10:36 PM
If you would like to see more detalied responses to assertions that are commonly repeated in opposition to the Alto Tunnel (including the ones above), please visit: http://www.marinbike.org/Campaigns/Infrastructure/AltoTunnel/alto_misconceptions.shtml
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Fully agreed. Whenever I think of you, I think of the Dali Lama's quote, "My Friend the Enemy". You make it pretty hard to not like you. Happy holidays, John!
Rico December 13, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Matt, the Cal Park tunnel is only a quarter mile long and no houses on top of it or neighborhoods at the portals, the Alto tunnel is a half mile long and has neighborhoods at both ends and houses above it, that is why it would be more expensive. And I have read that the Cal Park tunnel costed upwards of $27 million, I never have seen that the rebuilding only costed $18 million. Perhaps a study would find a better alternative for a third paved route between Mill Valley and Corte Madera that would not be so expensive. I think that some people just want a tunnel, the same people that wanted the SMART train. The SMART train was supposed to be running through the Cal Park tunnel by 2011 (that is what they sold the voters of Sonoma and Marin counties) now, nobody knows if it ever will run through there. The MCBC got their tunnel though, sans trains, even better. I really do wonder how many people actually use that tunnel. Every time I go to that area ( Anderson Dr.) during the week I look up on the path. Most of the time I see nobody up there, sometimes a few bicyclists in an hour. I think in both cases, the usage numbers were wildly exaggerated.
Andy Peri December 13, 2012 at 11:07 PM
Consider that this is a 50-100 year facility and that user number will only climb. The cost per user shrinks to pennies if looked at from this perspective. Then, consider a world class bicycle pedestrian system going throughout Marin (a lot the big, expensive parts of which are already built). Consider Marin being even more of an international travel destination than it already is. Consider local businesses (cafes, restaurants and Bed and Breakfasts) bursting at the seams and alive, vibrant local cities and towns that begin to look like Fairfax used to during the Marin Town and Country Club era (bustling). All for pennies per trip through the Alto Tunnel and other parts of the bike/ped network of Marin and Sonoma Counties. Consider tourists and residents getting off the SMART train from a tour in the wine country and supporting Marin's local economy on their bike. Let's envision, not live in fiscal fear. Marin is great, let's make it greater!
Rico December 14, 2012 at 02:17 AM
One point two million users per year each paying $5.00 per trip equals $6 million dollars per year, with an investment of only $60 million, that is a 10% per year ROI. An excellent return in this troubled economy. Privatize it . The taxpayers cannot afford to finance this boondoggle. Let the corporate investors go bankrupt when they realize that the numbers were wildly inflated for projected users.
John December 14, 2012 at 02:18 AM
Garry Lion has discussed this idea as well. Two issues though: a) it would bring 2 new groups of homeowners into the debate, the Coach Rd folks and those who live on the CM side, and these are also quiet cul-de-sac neighborhoods which would be transformed completely, and b) the route would have to traverse MC Open Space District lands, and would have to clear that hurdle. I don't know if anyone has approached the Open Space District about this - our association (Scott Valley) hasn't (and won't) because we, along with our counterparts on the CM side, have been lobbying for improvements along the two existing routes, Camino Alto and Horse Hill, in line with our constituents' wishes.
Rico December 14, 2012 at 02:34 AM
So, back to the article, how much will this feasibility study cost ? The taxpayers of southern Marin already paid for a study about running an electric trolley from Sausalito to Mill Valley. The study found that the trolley only ran down in the flats and not many people (if any) could ever use it. So, these private corporate "Trolley Visionaries" wasted the taxpayers money on a study that shot their plan down. This time, we the taxpayers should not be so gullible, let the MCBC and their other "people-buddies-corporations" pay for the study this time, and not squander our tax money on their special pet project studies. They might be surprised to learn that there are other more doable and less expensive alternatives to resurrecting the old Alto train tunnel. In other words, the MCBC should put their money where their mouth is.
Rico December 14, 2012 at 02:48 AM
Just curious Matthew, where to your young kids live that would require an intra district transfer fromTam to Redwood or vise- versa ? The reason that I am asking is that I had a problem when I went to Tam High and lived in Stinson Beach, then moved to Larkspur with my mother after my parents split up. The THUSD found out and tried to make me attend Redwood HS. I went down there and toured the campus and did not like Redwood at all, so I simply told them that I moved back to Stinson Beach with my father. The THUSD is very picky (or was then) about transferring between high schools in their district, have they changed their policy ?, or are you just making this stuff up ? And, do you commute by bicycle or walk between M.V. and C.M. ?, or are you just making that up too ?
Greg December 14, 2012 at 04:35 AM
If you're going to do a study on routes then do it right. Give all the options, challenges, costs, etc...and work the local folks on every option not just one. All I know is there are other, better, routes than trying to renovate an old tunnel. I routinely ride the fire road up coach rd on my road bike and if I'm on a mt. bike I take the single track past the rock to the top of Camino Alto....how does a little pavement hurt the alto bowl?...I live on the Alto Bowl and I've been taking care of the their land behind my place for 10 years. It's fine with me if a bike path gets put through there because i think I've routed about a thousand lost folks up those paths anyways rather than sending them back down Vasco to Camino Alto. The very best solution is usually the simple one....renovating a tunnel is not it. Another option is the
Bill McGee December 14, 2012 at 06:12 AM
Ricardo - a student living within the bounderies of the TUHSD can apply to go to one of the other schools and with few exceptions are granted. There is an open enrollment period every year and while no guarentees, most are approved. It is allowed and even encouraged because each school has some unique offerings. The policy and guidelines are transparent and I believe can be found on the district website.
Bill McGee December 14, 2012 at 06:38 AM
John's points are valid, thank you. I favor a study because one is needed to determine all the technical and practical details. It is complex and I don't blindly support any issue especially when the bulk of the information most readily available comes from online posters (-: Ricardo, you are correct no one gets out of bed in the morning with a burning desire to "ride through the tunnel today". It is simply a means to get from point A to B. I spent my youth riding around the county including those hills. Providing (relatively) flat options will increase the access and open cycling as a reasonable means of transportation to many, many more folks. I agree there must be a balance struck between cost, benefit, and concerns by neighbors which is precisely why a study will be beneficial.
Alisha Oloughlin December 15, 2012 at 12:06 AM
If you would like to add your support for re-opening of the Alto Tunnel, please sign the Re-Open Alto Tunnel Petition at: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/HMXFJRR
JZ December 15, 2012 at 03:52 AM
When you get in your car, do you set your GPS for the least-efficient, longest route with the most dangerous curves, lots of semi's, narrow lanes, deer and wild turkeys crossing every which way in front of you? Neither do I. But that's exactly what we tolerate when we commute by bike. Just because I bike doesn't mean I have all day to do it, or that I enjoy riding up a super steep, windy road with cars whizzing past me on their hurried way to work. Camino Alto and Horse Hill are neither safe, nor efficient. They're both very dark at night when I'm coming home, and early, when I'm riding to work. The weight of your car is no match for me or my bike, or a kid trying to get to soccer practice, or an elderly person, landlocked in Mill Valley by a mountain. I'm also guessing that when you go to the city, you take full advantage of the tunnel above Sausalito, and that if they closed it, we'd hear from you, then.
Cheryl Longinotti December 15, 2012 at 03:59 PM
I have seen a women using the Cal Park Hill tunnel with her electric scooter. No doubt that she and others with disabilities would use the Alto Tunnel. That is not going to happen via Horse Hill or any alternative route due to elevation changes. Alto Tunnel is an investment all can benefit from and it deserves mention in Mill Valley's planning documents.
Elisabeth Thomas-Matej December 16, 2012 at 04:38 AM
The topic placed before the Land Use & Mobility Working Group in this instance was feasibility assessments for bicycle/pedestrian “facilities.” A facility is a built structure—a bridge or tunnel. In that context, we cited Alto Tunnel. It is regionally important and already slated for a geotechnical survey. A traffic analysis done a decade ago showed that 26% of Mill Valley’s car traffic vanished when school was not in session. Enrollment has skyrocketed since then—by 40% in Mill Valley district, with lesser but steady increases still occurring at Tam High (part of TUHSD). Walking and biking to school have also soared. Predictably, the schools along the Mill Valley – Sausalito multi-use path—Edna Maguire and Mill Valley Middle—boast the biggest gains. But Camino Alto still carries heavy school car traffic over the hill. It includes students attending public high school or private schools, and students traveling for after-school activities. State, county, and city goals require us to reduce carbon emissions and car trips, for everyone’s sake. We can increase walking and biking by making it safer and easier, not punitive. Most children and non-athletes cannot manage Horse Hill. Peak elevation of Camino Alto is 330 feet. Casa Buena is 220 feet. Alto Tunnel is only 60 feet, right on the multi-use path, would be lighted at night and sheltered from cars and weather. For its potential to boost daily travel on foot and by bike, the tunnel has no equal.
Elisabeth Thomas-Matej December 16, 2012 at 04:51 AM
Concerns about expensive ventilation systems for a tunnel 2,173 feet long appear to be moot. The 2010 Alta Land People study says: “Natural air ventilation is sufficient...Historically, tunnels shorter than about 2,500 feet and with noncombustible elements and usage can be ventilated naturally.” http://www.walkbikemarin.org/documents/mv_cm_study/FINAL%20Study/Appendix%20B.pdf Adventurous people have been hiking and biking through the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnels for years, and Sideling Hill Tunnel is 6,782 feet long. The power was shut off in 1968.
Elisabeth Thomas-Matej December 16, 2012 at 05:53 AM
“I think if the Alto tunnel is rebuilt, most of the usage will be on the weekends, judging from the bicycle traffic over Camino Alto on the weekends.” Weekend riders will continue to ride on weekends. You can see a sample of weekday use by hanging out on the Mill Valley – Sausalito path in reasonably dry weather between 7:45 and 8:30 a.m., weekdays. Try stationing yourself at Almonte on one day, at Bayfront Park on another day, and at East Blithedale on a third day.
Janet March 31, 2013 at 06:14 PM
Bill, I grew up in Marin, I've ridden on pretty much every street and over every hill here. I now own a home near the closed Alto Tunnel. I walk along the Alto Tunnel path and see people out walking their dogs, kids being kids and picking blackberries and so forth. There is NO need to disrupt this cool set up, this abandoned tunnel at the end of the line, to make .....a hermetically sealed bike path. Really, you need to ride on "flat surfaces"? I've never heard anything so silly. We have two options, Camino Alto and Horse Hill. Camino clearly is congested by auto traffic and needs to be made safer. Horse Hill is a) Open....b) has nice gentle slopes with grades that can be scaled back and c) we are not opening a Pandora's box. It's key we are concerned with the toxicity issues associated with demolishing the tunnel. It's a major concern, we don't know what's in there, what could be released into the air etc. For people who say they don't like to ride over Horse Hill because it is next to the freeway.....I ask how excited they would be to be trapped in a tunnel on a bike inhaling whatever leftover toxic fumes may exist and looking not at the sky, but at concrete. This project, that's supposed to be so environmentally friendly, could be once of the least green concepts around.
Elisabeth Thomas-Matej April 02, 2013 at 07:11 AM
Janet, you suggest that it’s a “cool set up” to preserve a dead-end public path for the exclusive enjoyment of a handful of families, leave Alto Tunnel alone to resume its gradual collapse, and not investigate any deterioration brewing within. Ironically, homeowners near the tunnel stand to profit from its restoration at public expense, since property values typically rise near “rails to trails” projects. Second, they would benefit from free reinforcement of the ground, because the tunnel was reinforced only near the portals after its partial collapse in 1981. Third, residents worried about possible toxins inside the tunnel overlook the unnatural wetland outside the tunnel’s north portal: It results from seepage. Trenching the Alto Gap / Horse Hill path to flatten the grade “could result in substantial changes to the existing topography” and expose workers to “metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds, such as aerially-deposited lead” present in the soil near Highway 101. It would do nothing to diminish the long, steep, heavily trafficked detours from the multi-use paths at either end. So, the work would do little to attract commuter cyclists. What a waste that would be.


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