A Road Runs Through It

Ride the Santa Ana River trail while you still can

Photos by Matt OttoI'm spinning easily now. There's a mild onshore breeze gently pushing my bike and me. It feels effortless. A shadow flashes past. It belongs to a pelican descending until its wingtips nearly kiss the water. Rumbling over the slats of a wooden bridge, I pass Talbert Regional Park and Nature Preserve in Costa Mesa. I edge to the right of the trail and make room for a pack of cyclists racing to the coast.

I'm on the Santa Ana River Trail, a narrow two-lane paved path paralleling the river from Pacific Coast Highway to the three-corner boundary of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The 30-mile trail starts inauspiciously as it ducks beneath the overpass separating Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. Off limits to all internal combustion engines, it provides steady refuge from traffic, noise and congestion.

The trail got a write-up recently in the Los Angeles Times, but you'd never know from the story that the county is working hard to destroy a good chunk of it. In late April, county transportation officials voted to spend $150,000 to study a plan to build a new freeway over the Santa Ana River—right where the trail is now.

The plan goes back at least to 1986, when South Coast Plaza developer C.J. Segerstrom and Sons promoted it to the county. By 1990, county transportation officials said they didn't have the cash, but would consider a private-toll road along the riverbed. At the time, they said the road would carry 88,000 cars a day with a $2 toll and cost nearly $1 billion. Further study was required. The potential toll jumped to $5. The number of projected daily trips plummeted to 22,000.

Finally, in 2001, the toll road plan died when Caltrans officially scrapped further study. But now, Fourth District county supervisor Chris Norby wants to use the same route for a public freeway. No one knows if the freeway will eventually be built, but any idea that's survived so long won't go away so easily.

Riding farther along the trail, I race past Santa Ana's weathered homes huddled together behind barriers of iron and wire. The river is confined here, encased in Army Corps of Engineers concrete that drops steeply to the riverbed. The Corps channelized the river after a massive flood swamped much of central OC in the 1930s. This is where they want to build the freeway. Everything seems monochromatic.

To traffic engineers and planners, putting cars atop this concrete channel must be a no-brainer. In the 1990s, rampant gang activity gave the trail a reputation for lawlessness. But cops swept in and removed the desperados, allowing users to again enjoy the trail without fear of assault or the occasional bike jacking.

Today, my only brush with the less-than-ordinary comes in the form of a man shuffling along the trail, hair wild and unkempt, his body adorned with layers of dirt. Mumbling and occasionally yelling out for reasons only he understands, he bursts into a violent rant as I pass. A stream of epithets follows in my wake. Farther on, kids have scrambled down the steep cement bank and are playing in the riverbed. To my right, I hear the joyous roar of a crowd and see a flash of red and blue surge across a soccer field.

Who knows how much of this will continue if the county builds a roaring freeway over a quiet riverbed? Stacking a freeway on pilings seems ludicrous here in earthquake country, but the more immediate danger is in the millions of oil and fuel droplets that will end up in the river channel, headed toward the sea. Huntington Beach already has enough problems with sewage and urban runoff—now we want to run a giant pipeline from the freeway network to the ocean?

It takes me a while, but I soon reach the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. The trail pops onto a sidewalk to cross over Katella Avenue, then resumes on the other side, transformed into a sinuous path that snakes its way north and then east. The concrete riverbanks are gone; the river is meandering and verdant. A great blue heron, poised on one leg, stands like a statue of itself. Squirrels scamper along the edge of the trail and ducks play in the shallows. A brick wall shields this idyllic refuge from the frenetic rush of drivers on the 91 freeway.

I guess that's the solution—more brick walls. Just keep walling everything off. Just put another 11 miles of the trail behind a wall, if you're going to keep it at all.

I ride on, eventually skirting Featherly Regional Park in Anaheim. I enjoy a brief respite, munch on an energy bar, then turn around and start the long ride back to the surf, while I still can.

 
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