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March 18, 2011 > Letter to the editor: A Niles Canyon Story

Letter to the editor: A Niles Canyon Story

The history of Niles and Niles Canyon is best told by Phil Holmes and Jill Singleton in their book of photographic images and words - Niles, Fremont - revisit bandit Joaquin Murrieta, first and last water operated grist mill, railways of innumerable trains, and backdrops to the films of Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy and beginnings of the film industry. The early era has given way to an ongoing controversy of what the Canyon is for. For most citizens it's a scenic highway between 680 and 880, and Caltrans has addressed that need with a three phase plan of safety improvements. At least they claim safety, as presented at an urgent public hearing arranged by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, Senate Majority leader Ellen Corbett, and Senator Pete Stark on March 9th.

Countering their power point presentation and technical arguments were one to two hundred dissenters that either live near or know the Canyon well. The website www.savenilescanyon.org summarizes some of the arguments against the Caltrans plan, highlighting the 80 million dollar price tag that includes two miles of embankment and road widening. Little research is necessary to know how Californians make use of wider roads (they drive faster - and Caltrans follows the 85% rule to increase speed limits according to how that 85% majority of drivers travel). Unfortunately, Caltrans neglected to factor in the influence of alcohol or reckless driving in their survey of Hwy 84. Wisely, they made no mention of the "White Witch" fable, but their expertise on road safety became suspect to most of the audience, including elected officials. To be sure, no one wants to be the fourteenth death statistic after ten years of study, and no one disputed the need to improve the highway.

Most outspoken of the Caltrans critics was Jeff Miller of the Alameda Creek Alliance. Jeff states that Caltrans kept its EIR in hiding and now pursues an illegal process that, unless suspended, will result in lengthy and expensive litigation. Never underestimate the natural urge for Steelhead to swim up the Alameda Creek, or the tireless fifteen year campaign of Alameda Creek Alliance to continue helping this uphill struggle for survival. Is this David and Goliath? Is the survival of fish as important as human safety?

Perhaps the story of Niles Canyon connects these two forces. There are more possibilities why an injunction and re-evaluation of the Caltrans "safety" project could make sense. One option is to redirect a significant portion of the 80 million dollars towards transportation of the future - for example, mass transit with a currently unfunded Irvington BART station. A more visionary idea is to work towards an East Bay regional park, not unlike the recreational resource Niles Canyon has provided through its history. Steam train rides, camping and picnic areas, fly fishing and swimming, protection of an East Bay wilderness area - does it seem too idealistic? These are "Yes in my backyard" (YIMBY) ideas for Sunol, Union City, and Fremont. The choices of the future should be yours.

Rich Godfrey, MD
East Bay Regional Park - Park Advisory Committee Member

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