The $10 million bike trail

The Del Rio Trail will turn an abandoned railroad line into a regional destination

The Del Rio Trail will run from William Land Park and the zoo to the Sacramento River Parkway.

The Del Rio Trail will run from William Land Park and the zoo to the Sacramento River Parkway.

Photo by Eric Johnson

The abandoned Sacramento Southern Railroad line, which once carried pears, grapes and asparagus from the California Delta into Sacramento to be shipped to market, already feels, in some places, like an urban oasis. Near what will be the Del Rio Trail’s northern terminus, across Sutterville Road from the Sacramento Zoo, a hiker or biker moves through pools of shade thrown by native valley oaks and past nicely landscaped South Land Park backyards—many with access gates in their fences. A 10-foot-wide dirt road parallels slightly elevated tracks; in some places, the old railroad right-of-way widens into scruffy fields.

Over the length of its 4 and a half miles, the Del Rio Trail site is, in other places, overgrown and impassable. Volunteer cleanup efforts have already begun on the stretch running from Florin Road to the Meadowview/Pocket intersection. If all goes to plan, in a couple years or less, this trail will join the American River Parkway as a destination for hikers and cyclists. More importantly, it will become a local transportation resource, connecting South Sacramento and the city core.

Chuck Hughes, a member of the South Land Park Neighborhood Association, has devoted the past year to helping make the trail happen.

“This will mean folks from Meadowview and Pocket will be able to ride all the way to downtown almost entirely on Class 1 off-street paths,” Hughes says—explaining why that designation matters: “The more you can take bike routes off streets, the more comfortable people are. Off-street bike paths are the best way to get people onto bicycles who aren’t already experienced riders—that’s how you get someone who isn’t already on a bike to give it a try.”

A few days exploring the trail site and surrounding neighborhoods provide evidence as to why this is the case. The southernmost mile or so parallels Freeport Boulevard. On weekends, serious cyclists can be seen blasting down the boulevard on their way to big days roaming the rural roads of the Delta. But it’s easy to see why there aren’t a bunch of parents and children riding in the bike lane. The posted speed limit on Freeport Boulevard is, in places, 50 mph—and of course many drivers are ignoring that speed limit. In some places, the abandoned tracks can be seen 100 feet or so from the boulevard.

“I’m one of those guys in spandex some of the time,” Hughes admits, “and other times, when I’m out running errands, I’m just another schmuck on a bike.” His passion for this project clearly arises from a desire to help more ordinary schmucks get in the saddle.

One of Hughes’ favorite facts about this project is something most people would not consider when thinking about a municipal project like this: “At either end of the trail there are shopping centers anchored by grocery stores,” he says. “All of us who live anywhere near this trail are going to be able to do all our shopping on our bicycles,” he says, as if that were just about the coolest thing in the world—obviously.

While many rail-to-trail plans are about recreation, this one is clearly about transportation. The Del Rio Trail will pass within easy cycling distance of five grade schools, two middle schools, two high schools, a library and Sacramento City College. The zoo and William Land Park—the biggest park in the city—are at one end, and the Sacramento River Trail is at the other.

Much of that real estate is within Councilman Jay Schenirer’s district, and he believes this trail might be life-changing for many of his constituents. “It’s a matter of culture and habit,” he says. “For folks who live in these neighborhoods, this could make it easier and more fun for them to ride to work. On weekends, they might want to bike out to Old Sac.”

Schenirer says with the arrival of Jump Bikes—which, he points out, are getting three times as much use in Sacramento as in San Francisco—it will be easier and easier for people to get out of their cars.

A related benefit—something that came up repeatedly at a town hall meeting last week—this plan will “activate” the abandoned rail corridor, which, like much abandoned land, fosters its share of crime. “The more eyeballs we put on that trail, the safer it becomes,” Schenirer says.

Unlike many similar projects around the state, which can tend to provoke a NIMBY backlash, the Del Rio project is very popular—polls of neighborhood groups show 80 percent support. Schenirer is optimistic that this thing is going to happen quickly: “I want to be cutting a ribbon in 18 months.”

The one obstacle to that timeline might be the California State Railroad Museum Foundation, which, along with California State Parks, operates the tourist train that runs from Old Sacramento to the zoo, on the same line. While the foundation has officially declared support for the trail project, it sent a letter to the city in May asking that, in addition to maintaining 98 percent of the tracks for historical purposes, the plan “show that the rail line could potentially be viable again.”

A negative decision from the state Office of Historic Preservation could delay the project— Schenirer and other supporters are hopeful.

Mark Russo, legislative aide to Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, (D-Coachella) grew up just a couple blocks from the old railroad spur.

“I think back to the amount of times I rode my bike to my job at Jamba Juice on Broadway—riding in traffic on hot days,” he says. “Having this trail would’ve been huge for me and my brother.”

Russo is particularly glad the trail will benefit folks in South Sacramento, and Meadowview, who can access it via light rail.

In addition to giving residents a break from the drudgery of workday commutes and striking a blow against the fossil-fuel economy, the Del Rio Trail is part of a concerted effort to connect Sacramento’s underserved and more-well-off neighborhoods.

“It’s sometimes ’understood’ that certain things are for certain people,” he says. “Disadvantaged people might feel that certain community assets are not for them.”

The city’s ambitious bike-transportation plan is explicitly inclusive. The South Parkway West Trail Project would connect the Del Rio Trail to Meadowview. The Garcia Bend Trail would extend the existing Class 1 levee trail on the south side of the Pocket into much of the Pocket/Greenhaven neighborhood. The city is also upgrading Meadowview Road between Freeport and the light-rail station.

Russo’s been thinking about parks as a vehicle for social justice for some time, because his boss co-authored the monumental $4 billion parks bond that voters approved on June 3, which dedicates $1 billion to underserved communities. (At one time, it was thought that the park bond money might be used for the Del Rio Trail—at this time, the city is applying for a $10 million grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, or SACOG—which Schenirer chairs.)

Doing research in the field for the bond, Russo and Garcia visited Pogo Park in Oakland. “It’s an area about the size of this room,” Russo said, sitting in the dark cool of Brownie’s pub on 35th Avenue last Friday. “It had been a blight on the neighborhood—the only people who used it were drug dealers. Now it is a teeming neighborhood resource, with exercise equipment for kids, a fountain. … Every so often, they bring farm animals to the park for the kids to play with. It’s beautiful.”

Russo was even more excited about a much bigger park that will likely be the first project funded by the Proposition 68 parks bond. On Saturday, he met a group of folks at Sutter’s Landing Skate Park to take a walking tour. This spot along the lower American River has already been earmarked for $20 million from the state for the construction of a park that Russo routinely refers to as “our Golden Gate Park.”

He believes that park, especially given its proximity to the river, will make it one of the great urban parks in the nation, a regional if not national destination. Anyone who’s spent much time there might not have a hard time imagining that he is not exaggerating.

More importantly, from Russo’s perspective, this new park will be accessible to the same kinds of kids he envisions riding on the trail in his old neighborhood. Pointing to a map on his phone, he demonstrates that this new park will be a 17-minute bike ride for folks living up by El Camino in Arden Arcade.

“Of course, it will help to have better bike paths for them,” Russo says. And he seems confident that it’s something that will happen.