Million-dollar mile: Expensive section of trail provokes varied reactions

Price tag for first section of planned 33-mile Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail unexpectedly high

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photoThe first mile of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail comes to an end on property owned by the state. There’s no timeline for building the rest of the trail.

(/The Columbian)

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By the numbers

Costs and funding sources for Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail:

Master plan: $228,304 (federal transportation enhancement grant)

Design/engineering/permitting: $210,987 (federal transportation grant, state recreation grant)

Right-of-way: $39,650 (local real estate excise tax revenue)

Construction contract: $480,000* (state, local)

Construction management/inspection: $71,192 (state, local)

TOTAL: $1,030,133

  • Estimate; final amount still being negotiated.

A Columbian story reported that taxpayers just shelled out $1 million to build a mile recreational pathway as part of a railway trail project. I'm thinking:

  • Just because the economy is terrible doesn't mean we should stop building nice things like places to walk and jog. 19%
  • Can someone tell me how we stop the madness? What are elected officials thinking? 66%
  • I can swear we're in the Twilight Zone again.... and we can't get out! 15%

1261 total votes.

The sign at the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail declares it to be nine-tenths of a mile. County officials later clarified it to be slightly longer -- 5,257 feet, just 23 feet short of a mile -- but let’s just round up and call it a mile.

Then add up what Clark County has spent so far on the railroad trail project, and call it a million-dollar mile.

The $1 million includes a $228,304 federal grant which paid for a study that launched the entire 33-mile project. The first paved mile, from design to final inspection, cost $801,829, for a total of $1,030,133.

The county acknowledges the first segment was more expensive than anticipated, but the price tag hasn’t provoked uniform reactions.

County Commissioner Tom Mielke, who never wanted to accept a state grant that paid for part of the project, said it’s too expensive.

When Commissioners Marc Boldt and Steve Stuart voted in 2009 to accept the grant, which required matching local funds, Mielke said he’d heard from homeowners along the rail line who didn’t want the public near their property.

Mielke said last week he would have rather seen the money go toward extending an existing trail as opposed to one that starts across the street from Battle Ground Lake State Park and dead-ends on land owned by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Stuart, meanwhile, said it was just the first phase of a larger project and the county will look at ways to lower costs on future segments.

Others say regulations -- ranging from prevailing wage laws to wetland mitigation to mandatory railroad safety guidelines -- drive up the cost and the trail was expensive but not excessive.

The trail opened in late December.

Users who drive to the trail have to park at Battle Ground Lake State Park, which added another twist county planners didn’t foresee: There’s no free parking. Last year, the Legislature authorized making drivers buy a Discover Pass to park at state parks.

A one-day parking pass costs $10; an annual pass costs $30.

Expensive ‘jewel’

While short on money -- there are no immediate plans to build a second segment -- the plan has advocates.

The dream has been around a few decades. Ever since the county purchased the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad right of way in 1985, officials have been wondering how to make the best use of it. Inspired by other rails-with-trails projects in the United States, trail advocates started envisioning the possibilities of a cross-county trail.

In 2005, Stuart, as a member of a state panel that decided how to spend federal transportation enhancement grants, secured $230,000 to study the rail corridor.

That funded the Chelatchie Prairie Rail With Trail Corridor Plan, completed in 2008 by Portland’s Alta Planning & Design with input from two engineering firms, HDR Engineering of Portland and Vancouver’s PBS Engineering and Environmental. The study developed the basic alignment for a trail that would “connect major recreational destinations such as Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway, Battle Ground Lake State Park and Moulton Falls Regional Park.”

The plan designated the 33-mile trail as a potential “jewel” of Clark County, running diagonally from Burnt Bridge Creek to Chelatchie Prairie.

The plan suggested using 6.5 miles of existing trails, such as the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail and the Padden Parkway Trail, making approximately four miles of roadway improvements and building 22.5 miles of trail.

During public meetings, the most popular idea was to start by building a 2.8-mile trail from Fairgrounds Park in downtown Battle Ground to Battle Ground Lake State Park.

Additional funding was secured, but planners realized the project would have blown the estimated $2 million budget, so plans were scaled back, said Heath Henderson, engineering and construction manager for Clark County Public Works.

Project Manager Troy Pierce of Clark County Public Works said the Alta study took a big-picture look at the project, but additional costs came up during the engineering and construction phases.

Two of the costly surprises:

• Railroad safety. Henderson said they figured since the county owns the railroad (and leases it to Columbia Basin Railroad), there would be no problems doing work alongside it. But the county still had to follow federal safety guidelines, which meant 15 people (county employees and contractors) took a railroad safety course and the county had to pay an OTS (On Track Safety) supervisor to be at the site.

• Environmental challenges. Henderson said steep slopes required additional grading and walls. There were extensive permitting processes to ensure wetlands and creatures would not be unduly harmed.

Henderson said for public works projects, preliminary engineering costs average 14 or 15 percent of the total cost. For this one mile, the preliminary costs were approximately one-quarter of the total.

“I think the challenge is we don’t have another project like it,” Henderson said.

Henderson said lessons learned on this first segment will carry forward, hopefully making future segments less expensive to design. But some segments, such as parts of the trail that will cross creeks, will potentially have higher construction costs.

The trail was built by NW Construction General Contracting of Battle Ground, which submitted the lowest bid. The contract was for $406,800, but changes were made to reflect added expenses such as additional fencing and excavating, and providing fill material for areas that were found to be wetter than expected.

By law, Clark County has to pay prevailing wage. Those figures are calculated by the state Department of Labor and Industries, which polls local contractors. For the trail work, the hourly wages ranged from $34.36 for flaggers to $48.06 for excavator operators, according to county records.

The estimated final construction cost will be $480,000, but the amount remains under negotiation between the county and NW Construction, Henderson said.

While the county owns the railroad, it did have to pay $39,650 to access the start of the trail, helping increase the total cost to $801,829. (For a breakdown of costs, see accompanying box).

Consultant Steve Durrant of Alta, which produced the Chelatchie Prairie Rail with Trail master plan, said a trail over open ground with no other major improvements or property acquisitions can be estimated to cost approximately $110 a linear foot.

Under that assumption, a mile of basic trail would cost close to $600,000.

Future in doubt

Roy Heikkala, a construction consultant and parks advocate who recently chaired a countywide Blue Ribbon Commission on parks, said building parks and trails has become more complicated.

“It’s not because the county overspends,” Heikkala said. “It’s that the regulatory and permitting processes force you to spend lots of money.”

Still, he favors continuing work on the Chelatchie Prairie Trail, as does Ted Klump of the Chinook Trail Association.

“I’m a firm believer in trails, and urban trails are especially important,” Klump said.

Two-thirds of Clark County adults are overweight or obese, and “walking is probably the easiest and best exercise someone can do,” Klump said. “I wholeheartedly support the efforts of the county to move that project forward.”

But additional segments won’t likely be built anytime soon.

There are 66 miles of regional trails in the county, said Jean Akers, a parks planner with Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation, and the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail will remain a priority even if funding remains in doubt. At one time it was thought volunteers could help with the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Trail, she said, doing tasks such as clearing brush, but the federal railroad safety rules would require them to be trained and supervised.

The state grant that paid for a portion of the first mile came from the Recreation and Conservation Office’s Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

Funding for the program has been cut by more than half in six years, said Susan Zemek, communications manager.

Local money for the trail came mostly from real estate excise taxes. Real estate excise taxes are collected whenever a home is sold and are based on a percentage of the sale. The decline in those revenues has followed the downturn in home sales and property values.

In December, county commissioners agreed that dwindling revenues from real estate excise taxes would be used to pay debt on county buildings instead of going toward new capital projects such as roads and parks.

So the one-mile segment may be a standalone trail for some time.

That doesn’t mean people won’t enjoy it.

On a recent gray and rainy afternoon, a few people were walking on the 10-foot-wide paved trail, which has a narrow gravel shoulder for horseback riders to use.

The walkers included Ray Holbrook and his dog, Pearl. Holbrook said he lives two miles away.

Asked to guess how much the county spent to build the trail, he looked around.

“Three million?” he guessed. “They did a beautiful job.”

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.