For nearly two decades, an effort has been underway to rehabilitate the train trestle running along the Petaluma River downtown. A revamped trestle, supporters argued, would be part of a revitalized downtown and attract tourists to Petaluma.
But the wooden trestle, fenced off and crumbling, has only so far managed to attract rats to downtown. The structure has become a literal rat’s nest as rodents scurry between dumpsters along Water Street. The rat problem has made downtown even less appealing to tourists, which is bad for business.
Even without rats climbing all over the structure, the downtown trestle is a giant eyesore that continues to get worse as it falls into disrepair. Built in the early 1900s to carry goods by rail to the shipping docks that once lined the Turning Basin, the last train traversed those tracks in 1992.
Rail enthusiasts have kept alive a dream of one day reviving the trestle with a trolley service from downtown Petaluma to the Outlet Mall. While this would be a fun novelty to have, it is not practical and it is time to acknowledge that it will never happen.
First, the project is too costly. Revamping the trestle alone for trolley access would cost $5 million. Then there is the rest of the line that runs along Water Street, currently used for much needed downtown parking, and a grade crossing at East Washington Street. Would we want to disrupt the flow of our busiest downtown street with another train crossing?
The trolley line would need to be rebuilt on North Water Street as well, and part of that rail line is privately held, having been relinquished to the developer of the North River Apartments.
Then there is the logistical concern. Less than a mile away from the trestle, Petaluma has a train station with an active rail line that is actually useful. The SMART train, which has started service since the trolley plan was proposed, uses much of the same track that the trolley would occupy. The commuter rail agency would not likely alter its schedule to accommodate a crosstown trolley.
The Petaluma Trolley Living History Museum offers a great benefit to the city by preserving part of our rail heritage. They currently house and restore several old trolley cars at their yard on East Washington Street. The museum could still function without an active trolley line and, in fact, if the plan to reactivate the trolley line were dead, the museum could refocus its efforts on creating a better on-site visitor experience.
If we can agree to drop the plans for rail traffic on the trestle, then we can get serious about the trestle’s future. The trestle can still be a tourist draw and add value to downtown without a trolley. It would make a great pedestrian promenade and bike path along the Great Mill, and a natural extension of Water Street, where a planned public art installation will further beautify the area.
The last time the city discussed the trestle was 2012, when it spent a $500,000 Coastal Conservancy grant to do the design and environmental work for the trestle rehabilitation. Since that time, the site has continued to deteriorate. Pretty soon, there won’t even be a trestle left to rehab.
Without waiting for the trolley proposal to come to fruition, which is not likely going to happen, the city needs to get serious about revitalizing this resource for pedestrian use. The first step is to hold hearings and remove the trolley project from the city’s plans.