3 Cities Fight to Preserve Rail Corridor : Santa Clara Valley: They hope to buy the 106-year-old Southern Pacific right of way for recreation, tourism and possibly public transit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A battle for a 32-mile stretch of dilapidated railway meandering through the Santa Clara Valley--once a vital link in the coastal route that first joined Northern and Southern California--is being waged in an effort to save the historic line from extinction.

The cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ventura have joined Ventura County and the Ventura County Transportation Commission in an attempt to purchase the 106-year-old line from Southern Pacific Transportation Co.

Their purpose is twofold: to preserve the right of way for other purposes such as hiking trails, and to restore it as a source of revenue, including a possible public transit corridor.

"The main concern driving this is Southern Pacific could turn around tomorrow and start selling off the right of way, piece by piece," said Norm Wilkinson, Santa Paula's public works director. "If that happens, you can never put it back together again."

The 388-acre right of way is a snaking sliver of varying width--from about 40 feet to 200 feet--that runs west to Montalvo from just east of Piru, near the mouth of the Santa Clara Valley.

Local officials envision a scenic pathway running uninterrupted along the railroad track, which slices through lemon and orange groves, ranchland and downtown Fillmore and Santa Paula.

"We want to proceed with a bicycle and hiking trail that would run from one end of the valley to another," Wilkinson said. "It's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. I think it could become one of the crown jewels of this community."

Trail construction and maintenance costs could be covered with the estimated $200,000 to $300,000 in annual rental and franchise fees from various sunken pipelines and buildings that parallel the railroad, Wilkinson said. The pipelines and buildings are on the property the group wants to buy.

To finance the purchase from Southern Pacific, the local agencies applied in May for federal "transportation enhancement activities" funding from the California Transportation Commission.

Purchase plans, though, have hit a snag. The state transportation commission recently told the group that the request for $9 million is not on the transportation enhancement funding list, which has attracted 171 applicants statewide vying for $50 million. Frank Schillo, chairman of the county transportation commission, said the group's funding proposal was substantially higher than all others, and that the group is now considering reducing its request.

"We're faced with having to do this in piecemeal fashion," Schillo said. "We haven't given up. We're working with the (state transportation commission) staff, trying to modify our proposal and possibly bring it down in price."

The state commission will announce which agencies will receive funding at an Aug. 5 meeting in Sacramento.

The commission will again allocate similar federal funding at the end of the year, and Schillo said the group hopes to receive a second portion of the original request.

If the state commission gives the group only partial funding, it may be able to get enough money from other sources to buy the entire line from Southern Pacific--which has abandoned all but a small stretch of line between Santa Paula and Montalvo.

Meanwhile, Fillmore is leading the charge to secure the rails for future uses. The city has leased a 16-mile portion of the track--from Santa Paula to Piru--from Southern Pacific since last August.

Banking on Fillmore's railroad roots to rejuvenate the city's economy, city officials have also purchased from Southern Pacific a 13-acre right of way near the downtown business district as part of an ambitious redevelopment project that aims to tap into tourism as a source of revenue.

The city hopes to transform the property into a railroad-themed development that will attract tourists from throughout Southern California.

Details of the plan may be available at the end of the year at the earliest. But city officials say the attraction will include a dinner train operated by Short Line Enterprises--complete with ornately decorated dining cars--that will chug through the verdant valley at a calm 10 to 15 m.p.h.

The project's centerpiece may include a promenade of quaint boutiques, eateries, cultural attractions and commercial office space.

And city officials and Short Line owners both hope the company's vintage steam and diesel engines--some dating back to the early 1900s--will play an important role in the downtown rejuvenation and be a primary draw for tourists.

Short Line has provided trains for movies, televisions and commercials since the late 1960s. In 1990, the city of Fillmore loaned Short Line owners Jim Clark and Stan Garner $50,000 to move the operation to Fillmore from Saugus.

"We see them as a vital component to the tourist attraction that we're trying to create in the downtown," said Fillmore associate planner J. Anthony Perez. "We hope one of the primary reasons people come here is to take a ride on the train, on a (chartered) excursion or on a dinner train, once that gets going in the future."

As Fillmore and the other local agencies make plans for the future of the branch line, Southern Pacific is making plans to bow out, deeming the neglected stretch "surplus property."

"We don't have any heartburn--and certainly no disagreement--with the interest of any public body to acquire and maintain the corridor," said Ken Dixon, a managing director for Southern Pacific. Dixon negotiated Fillmore's initial lease agreement for Southern Pacific.

"The largest stumbling block that any of them have is: Do they have the money to buy it--and essentially compensate us for what we would otherwise get if we just went ahead and liquidated it in piecemeal fashion," Dixon said.

Southern Pacific's eventual exodus from the valley will end more than a century-long presence that began in late 1886, when hundreds of Chinese laborers first laid down tracks extending west from the Saugus depot.

Passenger service between Santa Paula and Saugus opened on Feb. 8, 1887, and the link to Ventura was completed in May of that same year, when the Santa Clara Valley corridor became part of the original main line that connected Northern and Southern California. In 1901, the existing main coast route was constructed from Oxnard through Moorpark and eastward to Chatsworth. The valley line was then relegated to mostly a branch freight route.

The railroad's introduction sparked a huge land boom in the valley, said Dorothy Haase, curator of the Fillmore Historical Museum.

The railroad upstart towns of Fillmore--named after J. A. Fillmore, a Southern Pacific superintendent--and Piru were soon flourishing, while the tiny settlement of Bardsdale never expanded because the railroad lay miles away from its doorstep and far from boarding and departing patrons, Haase said.

"The railroad was responsible for the population growth in the Santa Clara Valley," said Haase, a lifetime Fillmore resident. "There were very few homesteaders before then, and it started a new frontier."

After the land-grab explosion in the late 1800s, the area eventually became one of the world's largest citrus-producing regions because of its access to the railway, which became one of the busiest citrus-hauling branches in the country, said Dave Wilkinson, chapter president of the Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, though, the slow decline of the railroad became all too apparent.

Citrus packing houses--once relying solely on the refrigerated boxcars for transportation--began to employ a growing trucking industry, which evolved with the expansion of the interstate highway system, according to Dixon.

"The transition away from rail has been happening over the last 30 years," said Tom Hardison, manager of the Saticoy Fruit Exchange. "The most (citrus) hauled by train now is 5%, tops."

Rail service to citrus packers east of Santa Paula ended more than two years ago when Southern Pacific officially abandoned the track--which in many spots is choked with weeds.

And when the company sold off a portion of the railroad right of way between Piru and Saugus to Newhall Land & Farming Co., the railroad ties in that stretch were removed altogether.

With restoration efforts already under way on portions of the line, the nose dive into disrepair appears to be leveling off.

Thanks to an anonymous donation of $30,000, Short Line is busy most days installing 5,000 new railroad ties along a 10-mile stretch between Fillmore and Santa Paula.

Ninety percent of the ties being replaced were installed in the 1920s. "For the most part, the rail is from 1902," Garner said.

Short Line is hoping it can start the dinner train operation in a year.

"That is going to happen," Garner said. "It's just a matter of time. We need to get the acquisition of line out of the way first before we make a huge capital investment. Until then, we'll still do the movie operation and run chartered train rides." He said "City Slickers II," starring Billy Crystal, will be filmed next month. Part of the movie will be shot using Short Line's vintage rolling stock.

While an outright purchase would seemingly secure the Santa Clara Valley branch line for tourism, movie and group charters, its use as an eventual transit corridor would still hang in the balance, said Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the county transportation commission.

"The issue of commuter rail service will depend on funding availability," she said. "We probably wouldn't put in a transit rail until we have a (half-cent) transportation sales tax. That's anybody's guess when that will occur. With the recession, it's obviously not a smart thing to pursue right now. But it would be (the) key for funding passenger rail service."

Save the line first, worry about all else later, says Wilkinson of the railroad historical society.

"For now, we're just concerned with restoring the line and making the deal with Southern Pacific," he said. "It makes good sense for economic reasons and because this is the heritage of the valley--it deserves to be saved."

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