This article originally appeared in the Voice of OC on Feb.8, 2023.
What once carried thousands as far north as Los Angeles by rail might now connect bikers between two of the most park-poor cities in Orange County, and in lush green seclusion safe from dangers on the roads.
The project is called “rails-to-trails,” in which the Orange County Transportation Authority plans to convert retired train tracks to bike paths running beside the upcoming OC Streetcar, across a 3.1 mile stretch linking Garden Grove and Santa Ana.
Environmental studies are set to launch in the Spring, and the tracks that once moved the red cars of Henry Huntington’s old Pacific Electric rail line will soon serve even more purposes and all at once.
To active transportation advocates like Kris Fortin, the rails-to-trails program creates “more efficient ways of getting around town and greater opportunities to open up rail right-of-ways for public use.”
“It creates calmer pathways of travel that don’t conflict with cars and also creates open space in a region where it’s underutilized and gated away,” said Fortin, a transportation writer and organizer with Santa Ana Active Streets.
Putting aside the green space and trails potential, Fortin also said it’s a chance to reintroduce native plants to public places amidst climate change and water scarcity.
“We need as many of these different options as we can get,” Fortin said, calling the OCTA project “a no-brainer.”
OCTA officials expect the project’s study phase “to take approximately 18 months to complete,” according to agency spokesperson Megan Abba.
Only upon the next stage – a design process evaluating the use of a historic bridge on site, along with testing soil for potential contamination – will the trail’s physical appearance and featured vegetation become clear, said Abba in an emailed response to questions. “Former rail corridors present a good opportunity for active transportation facilities because it is rare for a continuous linear right-of-way to be available,” Abba said. “Because OCTA already owns this right-of-way, it makes sense to evaluate this particular corridor.”
The project would also provide a “critical connection” from the two cities’ downtowns to the Santa Ana River trail, which is part of the 66-mile “OC Loop” that connects various destinations throughout Orange County, Abba said.
It would also help shore up a need for more green space between the two cities.
In Santa Ana, for instance, officials’ new Parks Master Plan estimates that approximately 20.6 miles of trails are needed to enhance pedestrian and bicycle connections to local parks and regional trails.
The city’s developing a bike “loop” of its own, as well. When completed, the city’s planned “Golden Loop Trail” will span a 17-mile multi-use path connecting the Santa Ana River to various destinations. Approximately 4.5 miles of trails are needed to complete the loop, according to the parks plan.
Abba cast the central county rails-to-trails project as a “key component” to closing piecemeal trail gaps in the region.
“Significant progress has already been made on the OC Loop in northern Orange County. About 88% of this network is already in place and work continues to connect the remaining gaps,” Abba said.
It’s part of what the county transportation agency calls the Bike Gap Closure Feasibility Study, which looks to create regional bikeway networks across central and south county and is expected to “wrap up later this year,” Abba said. “The Garden Grove to Santa Ana project would provide an important connection between the north and central loops.”
The rails-to-trails gap closure is currently the only active project on the Pacific Electric right-of-way, Abba said, while Garden Grove recently completed a 1-mile segment on the right-of-way called the Medal of Honor Bike and Pedestrian Trail between Nelson and Brookhurst streets.
Fortin said he hopes to see rail conversion efforts become a regional coordination along the same vein.
The OC Loop is “a cohesive vision and that regional effort is being realized,” he said.
“And that’s what the Pacific Electric (railway conversion) needs.