Cal Park Tunnel Opening Ceremony Sees Hundreds of Cyclists

Some of the first cyclists to ride through the tunnel after the ceremonial opening. Photos: Tom Murphy
Some of the first cyclists to ride through the tunnel after the ceremonial opening. Photos: Tom Murphy

Hundreds of joyous Marin County cyclists pedaled through the Cal Park Hill tunnel Friday afternoon as officials cut the ribbon on a $27 million holiday present that supporters hailed as a national model for green transportation.

The 124-year-old railroad tunnel, sealed after a fire in 1990, connects the Larkspur Ferry landing to San Rafael, trimming 10-15 minutes from the trip for the average cyclist. A separate, enclosed tube will allow light-rail trains to reach Larkspur when the SMART system is built years from now, the next step in what several speakers referred to as “the vision” for transportation.

“This is truly a testament for our vision of a multimodal transportation system for Marin County,” said San Rafael Mayor Al Boro. “It links bicycles, pedestrians, buses and passenger trains, ultimately with a choice of how they want to go to and from their destination.”

The striped bikeway features four video cameras, emergency phones, ventilation, LED lighting, cell service and fire alarms. In addition to the 1,106-foot tunnel, class 1 bike paths connect to Sir Francis Drake Blvd and Anderson Road, bringing the total length of the project to 1.1 miles. It will be open daily from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. with expectations of up to 800,000 riders per year.

“It’s such a world-class facility that it’s going to be a model for the nation,” said Deb Hubsmith, the advocacy director for the Marin County Bike Coalition (MCBC) who led a twelve-year grassroots campaign to reopen the tunnel.

“It’s taken all kinds of collaborations and agencies to bring it together,” she told Streetsblog in an interview. “It shows that vision, tenacity and will can truly make miracles happen.”

At the opening, Hubsmith drew loud cheers by saying the vision is important “so that we can shift and get people out of their cars, so that we can be healthier, so that we can be fitter, so that we can use less oil, and so that we can be happier. Tell me, do you have more fun sitting in traffic, or do you have more fun bicycling?”

A Long Road

The tunnel’s re-opening was first proposed in 1993 by Transportation Alternatives for Marin (TAM), an organization led by Patrick Seidler, the president of Wilderness Trail Bikes. Seidler used to ride his Stingray bike through the old tunnel as a child. Over the last 17 years, rising costs, engineering challenges and political debates added to the project’s difficulty.

For Marin cyclists, the tunnel adds a critical link to the north-south bikeway that will eventually run from the Golden Gate Bridge to Cloverdale in Sonoma County. The route will include bike paths along the planned 70-mile SMART route. The tunnel project also connects with two east-west bike routes leading toward Larkspur and the Ross Valley.  A new north-south link provides a lighted class 1 path over Lincoln Hill from San Rafael to the Civic Center.

MCBC's Deb Hubsmith addresses the crowd.
MCBC's Deb Hubsmith addresses the crowd.

“I think it took about eight minutes off my ride and it’s much safer,” said Bob Ulrich, a San Rafael cyclist who was among the first to complete the two-minute ride through the tunnel. “I absolutely love it.”

The tunnel is also a hit with disabled residents like Jessie Sandoval, a systems change advocate for the Marin Center for Independent Living. “It means more independence and having a better route to get around Marin,” she said after rolling through the tunnel at 9 mph in a motorized wheelchair that carries her 20 miles between charges.

The Next Tunnel

MCBC and TAM are also leading efforts to re-open the Alto Tunnel, which runs under Camino Alto between Mill Valley and Corte Madera. That tunnel is half as wide and twice as long as Cal Park, but is believed to be in much worse shape. It is filled with rotten timbers, mud and rock. Engineers also believe there have been multiple collapses inside.

While the Cal Park tunnel is in a commercial area, the Alto project would bring bicycling traffic into two quiet residential neighborhoods where many residents are worried about the environmental impacts. “For Alto, the Cal Park tunnel is going to open the door so people can see the Alto tunnel would work, too,” Hubsmith said in the interview.

Ironically, while voter approval of the SMART line helped justify re-opening the Cal Park tunnel, the rail project has been sidetracked by budget problems. A $350 million shortfall in anticipated sales-tax revenue forced the transit system’s board to scale back its plans. SMART now hopes to start service with trains between Santa Rosa and the Marin Civic Center.

Opponents are calling for a repeal of the sales tax, saying SMART is proving it cannot live up to the promises it made to voters. County supervisors have urged the SMART board to postpone any major expenditures pending an independent review of its finances. Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who pushed hard for the tunnel project for several years, recently said SMART now faces “a crisis of confidence.”

“We don’t have the high speed rail, but we do have the high-speed trail, and a low-speed walking trail,” Kinsey said at the tunnel opening. “This is for all of us to use in the way we want to use it.”

  • $2000 / inch for a tunnel which was already there? It always amazes me how much can be spent on these seemingly simple projects. Using the numbers in the article with a 5%/year projected cost, that’s $12.65 / hour saved assuming 8 minutes / rider / trip.

  • If you turn on Bicycle and Terrain in Google maps, it becomes clear where the tunnel must go: http://goo.gl/maps/1Rrg

    Has anyone submitted the info to Google Maps? If you ask for cycling directions, you get a “Report a problem” link at the bottom. I have used this several times and Google fixes the problem (sometimes it takes a few months, but it gets done). I suspect that if officials from Marin County government/cycling groups were to contact Google it might go faster.

    It will be nice to see that map’s gap between the two dark green cycling routes connected.

  • PS. Here’s a map with where I think it goes, but I may not be correct, so don’t count on it:
    http://goo.gl/maps/zv5C

  • Sorry for the repeated posts: It looks like someone has reported the change to Google: http://sf.streetsblog.org/2010/12/10/cal-park-tunnel-opening-today-culminates-nearly-two-decades-of-planning/

  • prinzrob

    The tunnel actually goes from Larkspur Landing to south San Rafael, so the previous guesses are very off the mark. Please see the following link for more accurate information:

    http://www.marinbike.org/Campaigns/Infrastructure/CalPark/Opening.shtml

    I’ve mapped just the end access points of the tunnel here:

    http://tinyurl.com/29ksyvx

  • prinzrob, thanks for the clarification!

  • Gary
  • Are cyclists and pedestrians such kiddies that we can’t be allowed to use our infrastructure past 11pm??? We allow misbehaving, up-late and often likely drunk drivers to use the Caldecott tunnel at all hours. Even worse than this prohibition on the new tunnel is the childish way in which the Iron Horse Trail is treated out on the eastern suburbs, where you cannot ride after dark.

  • Justin: You’re right, it’s outrageous that the tunnel is closed at “night.” At least on Iron Horse Trail (and other trails in CoCo County) you can ignore the “closed 10PM-5AM” signs–I have been known to ride there after “close” It sounds like the tunnel will be LOCKED to keep folks out. Too bad for those who don’t work “normal” hours and may have an early or late commute (even BART is only closed from about 1:00AM until 4:00AM).

  • @djconnel: Annualized capital cost is around $1 million, for 800k annual trips. That is far better than just about any other transit facility in the Bay Area.

  • Yes, closing a vital transportation link is absurd.

    Imagine if our freeways closed every evening from 11pm to 5am? It sure would save on a lot of maintenance!

  • Bob Davis

    This opening was also reported in Trainorders.com. One member commented “If only passenger rail advocates had as much pull as the bicycle lobby…..”
    Another wrote: “Chickened out from standing up to Critical Mass. Again.” (I’m not sure how “on target” the second remark is, just relaying the sentiments from another point of view.)
    Regarding locking the tunnel in the middle of the night: I suspect this is to keep the local “residentially challenged” from turning it into a “crash pad”. But it also gives the impression that whoever decided to lock up the tunnel assumes that bicycling is not a 24/7 activity.

  • James

    I’m also guessing the concern is people setting up camp in the tunnel. Maybe they should do something like the GGB does during the late hours. Lock the gates at night but allow them to be remotely buzzed open for cyclists.

  • The legendary Clarence Eckerson, Jr. was in town last week and captured the moment in another nice Streetfilm:

    http://streetfilms.org/marin-countys-cal-park-tunnel-finally-opens-to-much-fanfare/

  • hikusar

    @djconnel: Have you ever worked in construction? Any project requires lots of coordination and is complicated by codes, contractors, sub contractors, funding sources, construction regulations….etc. Plus, this tunnel had to be seismically retrofitted to withstand a major earthquake which is where a bulk of the $28 million went.

  • Thank you for all the bicycle safety, maybe late but hopefully not to late. Check this out on the, “WEB” amd Author Timothy O’Routke,”Soaring Car Culture Clash” New York times colmnist. Guangzhua+15 other Chinese cities just recently bought 60 gargantuan Tunnel Machines. Last year they built 71 miles, This year 83 miles 4 $100 per. mile with plans of building 500 + many more miles, Perhaps to off-set oil depletion day when the Planet Earth runs out of oil?