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Tunnel Closures Mean the End of the Road for John Wayne Trail

By Angela Sucich
Bicycle Paper
Faced with what may be permanent closures at tunnels 46 through 50 (Snoqualmie Pass to Kittitas), which the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission closed indefinitely due to the risk of falling debris, trail users might have seen the end of continuous riding along the former Pacific Railway bed from Cedar Falls to the Columbia River.

It may be the end of the road for bicyclists and other trail users who enjoy traveling along the historic and scenic 110-mile Iron Horse State Park, aka the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Faced with what may be permanent closures at tunnels 46 through 50 (Snoqualmie Pass to Kittitas), which the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission closed indefinitely due to the risk of falling debris, trail users might have seen the end of continuous riding along the former Pacific Railway bed from Cedar Falls to the Columbia River. For cyclists who wish to ride long distances on the Pioneer Trail, this may mean having to take detours along Interstate-90.

In a review conducted by Kleinfelder, Inc., an engineering consulting firm, and cited in the State Parks Commission’s January 30, 2009 press release, sections of the five tunnels rated moderate to high or very high on a hazards scale, findings that led to the Commission’s decision to close the tunnels. Kleinfelder’s report includes short-term options for reducing these hazard ratings, although shelling out $9 million to bring the tunnels down to an acceptable low hazard rating may be asking a lot in this economy, especially considering that costs may well exceed the estimate, if and when repairs do get underway.

Funds for the tunnel repairs have been included in budget requests for the 2009-2011 biennium, which supporters hope will be approved by the State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire when the budget is finalized this May/June. A request for federal stimulus package money has also been made, according to the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission, as reported in a January 31, 2009 Seattle Times article.

However, Washington State Parks, which manages more than 121 parks and recreation programs, already faces major state funding cuts of $10 million and expects these cuts to run even deeper — possibly up to $23 million — due to a predicted revenue shortfall of more than $8 billion. Indeed, 33 parks are being considered for “mothballing,” or temporary closure.

The tunnel closures affect the western section of trail incorporated into the Iron Horse State Park, a 1,612-acre recreational area stretching from Cedar Falls to the Columbia River. With its non-strenuous 2% railroad grade, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail offers non-motorized trail users an easy and scenic hike, bike or ride, while its high trestle bridges and awe-inspiring tunnels provide pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians (skiers and dog-sledders during winter months) with unique viewpoints along the Cascade Range to central Washington. The eastern, DNR-managed portion of the trail stretches from the Columbia River in Vantage, Wash., to the Idaho border.

What People Are Saying

News of the tunnel closures came at a time when portions of the trail were already closed for the season (Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel is closed from November 1 to June 1), but it generated immediate and sometimes heated discussions in web-based forums. Several people who replied to the online Seattle Times article about the tunnel closures proposed user-sponsored solutions, such as a one-time trail use fee of $42 or a suggested tire tax of $14.

Not everyone, however, seems ready to throw money at the tunnels. More than one responder said to just wear a helmet and put up a “Watch for Falling Rock” sign, while others questioned the high cost of the estimate. “How much would it cost to send a bucket truck through the tunnel and have someone tap on the ceiling with a hammer and inject epoxy into any cracks? Or mark the cracks with spray paint? How about setting up a net to catch the falling debris? I think the whole thing is a boondoggle,” wrote “AviationMetalSmit” on February 1, 2009, in response to the Times article.

The initial furor on news websites may have subsided, but other organizations are seeing a continued interest regarding the tunnel repairs. Ben Gettleman, trail development manager for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) western regional office, has received calls and e-mails about the closures, mostly in regard to the proposed $9 million cost estimate. “There’s some sticker shock on the cost of trail development and facilities,” says Gettleman, because “people want to know if trail work really costs that much.” Gettleman’s response generally is, “Yes, yes it will. But it’s a lot cheaper than [building] a road or a highway tunnel.” He says that the high cost is due to the U.S.’s liability standards.

Even with the big price tag for repairs, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail “is a really awesome resource for Washington,” says Gettleman, with its “long swath of trail” connecting all the way to Idaho. He credits Washington for having the foresight to buy up the corridor that was once The Milwaukee Road, part of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad line that operated between 1908 and 1980. After the company went bankrupt, much of the property was acquired by DNR and turned over to Washington State Parks, according to the Parks website.

“Washington, man, they figured it out,” says Gettleman. He contrasts the state’s foresightedness with Idaho and Montana, two other states that the railway line passed through that initially balked on the purchases, in part due to all the dilapidated tunnels they would have had to repair. Once a corridor is broken up and sold off to different buyers, it’s harder for the state to come back and buy up patchwork land, says Gettleman. But now RTC is seeing state agencies in Idaho and Montana working to preserve these corridors for recreational use, which comes at a time when Washington is struggling to maintain its own corridor.

Honoring the Past, Imagining the Future

In 1999, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail was designated a national Millennium Trail as part of a White House Millennium Council initiative “to stimulate national and local activities to ‘Honor the Past and Imagine the Future.’” But at present, it’s uncertain whether a restored John Wayne Pioneer Trail will be part of America’s legacy, which has some organizations like the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust concerned.

“We consider this cross-state trail to be the backbone of the regional trail system in the Mountains to Sound Greenway,” said Amy Brockhaus, communications manager for the organization that helps maintain the open space around the I-90 corridor.

According to Brockhaus, their organization is ready to assist Washington State Parks in their work to get the tunnels repaired. “The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust will support [the Park’s] efforts in any way possible,” said Brockhaus, though she did not specify what that support would entail.

If the web postings are any sign of support, many cyclists appear ready to do their part to restore the tunnels, but they expect other trail users to do the same. One cyclist, “Dakzuki” of Carnation, Wash., wrote, “When are we going to have a horse tax to support the trails?”

Actually, equestrian groups like the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders do support the trails. In fact, the organization was instrumental in the creation of their namesake trail. “Our group helped get the railroad turned into a trail, so we have been advocates since day one,” says Missy Day, a spokesperson for the organization. “We really only exist to promote, use, work on and be advocates for the John Wayne Trail.” Their annual two-week, cross-state rider and wagon trip along the trail is scheduled to start on May 22, so “the tunnel closures are a real problem for us,” says Day.

Another group that is reconsidering their use of the trail is the Mountains to Sound Relay. For three years the organization has held their multi-sport race through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, and now they are planning to reroute the course in the likely event that it remains closed.

“It is admittedly one of the unique elements of our 100-mile course,” says organizer Chris Lewis of the Snoqualmie Tunnel, “but I would have to say that many of the bikers could have done without it. It is pitch black, super wet with water dripping from the ceiling, along with a crowned gravel bed that slopes into jagged rock walls, and it’s over two miles long! Unique but scary.” Lewis will be meeting with the park ranger as soon as snowmelt allows to design a different start, most likely using Exit 38 off of I-90 that accesses the trail.

Events like the Mountains to Sound Relay serve a valuable function in raising awareness — and funds — for projects like the tunnel repairs. According to Lewis the event, which “has raised $40,000 so far for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust,” helps advance the mission to “bring awareness to all things recreational along the I-90 corridor,” and contributes to Mountains to Sound Greenway’s “solid stewardship of our ‘backyard.’”

Despite the tunnel closures, bicyclists still have access to their “backyard.” Brockhaus notes that cyclists can access the trail at its western terminus at Rattlesnake Lake, near North Bend, from where they can ride 20 miles east, up to the mountain pass. Or they can start at the Hyak trailhead at Snoqualmie Pass and head east. According to Louise McGrady, advocacy director for the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, cyclists heading eastbound can avoid Snoqualmie Tunnel by taking the paved side road that parallels I-90 and runs from the Denny Creek exit to Lake Easton, where they can then return to the trail.

Riders can also explore other nearby Rails-to-Trails options, like the 36-mile Snoqualmie Valley Trail, which starts at Rattlesnake Lake and heads west, crossing trestle bridges over Tokul Creek and Boxley Creek, to end at McCormick Park in Duvall. Of course, there is always the chance that funds for repairing the tunnels on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail will be procured. Gettleman, for one, is optimistic: “I hope we can get money for it. It’s a real gem.”

Currently, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is trying to electronically map all parts of the U.S.’s rail-trail system to create detailed information for users. You can visit their website to learn more about the John Wayne Pioneer Trail and to make a donation to the cause at support.railstotrails.org.

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