Alto Tunnel Workshop Draws Standing-Room-Only Crowd


A large and divided crowd turned out last night in Marin County to help decide whether the long-neglected Alto Tunnel between Mill Valley and Corte Madera should be reopened to cyclists.

County planners stressed the workshop was intended only to gather community input on three possible routes as part of a $225,000 study that will be concluded this fall. But emotions shifted into high gear as cyclists cited reasons to restore the railroad tunnel that’s been decaying over the last four decades.

“The handwriting is on the wall. It’s only a matter of time,” said David Hoffman, planning director for the Marin County Bike Coalition. “There aren’t any issues with the tunnel that can’t be resolved.”

Like much of the existing bike network in Marin and Sonoma counties, the 16-foot-wide tunnel was built by the railroads. It opened in 1884 as redwood forests were being leveled to support urban sprawl in San Francisco. The passage was sealed in the 1970s, and portions have collapsed as its 12-by-14 redwood beams rotted in the dank, stagnant air trapped beneath the mountain. The southern end crumbled in a rainstorm 28 years ago. Several large portions have been filled. The north end is plugged with 125 feet of cement.

The old railway bed that approaches from either end has given root to lush, green foliage and stands of blossoming cherry, almond and magnolia trees, creating a natural haven for nearby residents who jealously guard the solitude and beauty. Some of them fear a wave of spandex-clad cyclists would threaten the seclusion of their sanctuary.

“There’s going to be a huge reaction from the neighborhood,” said one Scott Valley resident who declined to give her name. “It’s going to change the overall feeling of the neighborhood.”

John Palmer, secretary of the Scott Valley Homeowners Association, presented an 18-page bound report that included a number of dubious claims about cycling, such as: “Bicycles are impractical to use for anything more than light shopping, especially for families with children.”

Map_of_Study_Area.jpgClick for a larger image.

Although only about half the crowd wore green day-glo “I Support the Tunnel” stickers, they did most of the talking as county planners took detailed notes on the pros and cons of each of the routes under study.

Cyclists complained that Horse Hill, the existing bike route along US 101, was inadequate because it’s too steep for children, too dangerous for pedestrians and so close to the freeway that oncoming cars blind cyclists at night with their headlights.

Camino Alto, the serpentine road that winds up the 450-foot hill above the tunnel, is too narrow, too crowded and suitable only for those in top shape, they said.

“Camino Alto is a death wish. It’s too hard unless you’re a super athlete,” said Jane Chesson, a Corte Madera resident who brought her five children – ages 7-17 – to the workshop. She said her family can’t cycle to the Mill Valley Recreation Center over either of the existing routes. “It’s dangerous. It’s not fun. We’re not going to do it.”

The study is part of the county’s $25 million Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program, which is designed to encourage residents to walk or cycle instead of drive a car. In addition to determining the best route, the study will also develop an estimate of what it would cost to reopen the badly damaged tunnel. The actual funds to restore the tunnel would come later, meaning that even if the tunnel option is favored, it would be years before the first cyclist could roll through it.

In his report, Palmer wrote: “…it’s easy to imagine the cost to reconstruct the 2,172 foot-long Alto Tunnel rising to $15 million or more.” He estimated $10 million would be enough to construct 53 miles of new bicycle/pedestrian paths.

Tunnel advocates estimate the cost at anywhere from $10 million to $25 million. But they say it would be worthwhile even at the higher cost because it’s a project that would benefit generations of area residents.

  • Peter

    i’m curious what the rail folks might think of this tunnel project. i’m assuming there’s not room for a train and walkers and bikers.

    i’d also be curious to see a simulation of what a tunnel could look like. wonder if Google Sketchup could handle it?

  • Peter

    wanted to add that Horse Hill can just be extremely unpleasant for walkers and bikers. it’s so loud (from the cars/trucks/buses/etc.) that you can’t even hear yourself think. we deserve better.

    i also found this cool old-school video of the tunnel — looks like it’s from at least 10 years ago:

    if anyone can pinpoint the tunnel on a map, i’d love to see where it is. i tried to follow it on Google Maps, but I always seems to lose it. i’d like to do a My Map of the route.

  • Rail in that tunnel would be a train to nowhere… i doubt the tracks still exist on either side…

  • Jeffrey W. Baker
  • Peter, Wow. That video — deja f***ing vu. Incredible actually.

    ‘This is not a transportation corridor’…. Um, actually I think it is. Same outmoded arguments. NIMBY’ism, anti-bike sentiment from the automotive public, and rampant hit-and-run (car on bike/ped) crashes just seem to go together with California like avacados, suburban sprawl, and proposition-based voting.

  • I attended the meeting> I’m a huge fan of opening the tunnel, but thought the discussion was good on both sides of the arguement. I was impressed that it didn’t devolve into a shouting match given the passions on both sides. I think the tunnel detractors do have some good points, but that their concerns can be addressed. For me, the valid points are concerns about speed of bike traffic through the tunnel and around the elementary school which sits very close to southern end of the tunnel. The bike path between Mill Valley and Sausalito gets tons of bike traffic as is and in my opinion is bumping up its carrying capacity at a busy weekend day. I think most recreational road bikers would tear through the tunnel moving pretty fast – if you’ve got walkers, kids, strollers, dogs, etc.. in a confined space there could be some issues. I think that could be successfully mitigated in several ways though.

    The benefits of opening the tunnel are huge. That bike path sees all kinds of traffic – local errands, recreaters, tourists, kids, elderly. Connecting Mill Valley and Corte Madera through an easy to use path would allow people to actually avoid using their cars for a lot of common errands and trips.

  • South of the tunnel, the right of way has already been converted to a pestrian/bike path. In fact, that trail pretty much dead ends at Blithesdale and cyclists are on the street from there.

  • Sprague

    Although it is a great shame that trains no longer can operate on that route, resurrecting the tunnel for bicyclists and pedestrians will provide the first feasible (ie. not steep) connection between Mill Valley and Corte Madera for many of these non-motorized travellers. It is worth noting that there are several small housing developments near the southern end of the tunnel that serve seniors and/or persons with disabilities and, for the wheelchair users amongst them, this tunnel also offers them a new route to travel north.

  • David M.

    It is important to remeber that the old railroad right of way has already been paved from Sausalito almost to the south portal of the Alto Tunnel. North of the tunnel, the old rail line has been paved to greenbrae and more importantly, down to Wornum Drive in Corte Madera (the Sandra Marker Trail to the Corte Maderea DMV office).

    Now that the Cal Park Tunnel is almost finished, we will have a multi-use, relativley flat and safe path from the San Rafel Transportaion hub all the way to Sausalito EXCEPT for the bottleneck at the closed Alto Tunnel!

    This is my open bet: Anyone who suggest that the detour down Tamalpais Drive up and over Horse Hill and then double back down E. Blithedale HAS NEVER EVER EVER TAKEN THEIR BIKE OVER HORSE HILL. The Horse Hill route from Marin Joes to the freeway path is substantially steeper than Corte Madera Avenue. Non-cycclists just don’t get it because they view the Horse Hill path from their cars while driving down the freeway.


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