Imagine a train that runs through Grass Valley and Nevada City and that can take passengers either to Lake Tahoe or Colfax, where a transcontinental Amtrak line already stops on its way to and from Sacramento and San Francisco.
This is Al Bulf’s $1.5 billion vision — one he wants privately funded. He sees the railway as not only the remedy for public transportation, but also one that could transport goods and utilities and bring commerce to the area.
“Rail is a wonderful form of transportation,” said Dan Landon, the executive director of the Nevada County Transportation Commission. “It’s very efficient and cost-effective.”
Bulf is a regular visitor to Nevada County’s various governmental meetings, where he regularly espouses the merits of his plan to build a 25-mile public railway that he sees as increasingly necessary as the cost of fuel increases.
“It’s coming down to this: If you live in a rural area, you use more energy,” Bulf said. “Things can get rationed, scarce or nonexistent because we depend on using trucks to get everything.”
Despite Bulf’s laying tracks at the Nevada County board of supervisors or Grass Valley and Nevada City’s city councils’ meetings, none of those representatives have yet to get on board with Bulf’s plan.
“Twenty years ago, the (transportation) commission did an analysis of possible corridors in the county, and that corridor was not one that was found to be feasible,” Landon said about the initial $1 billion estimated railway stretch from Colfax to the Grass Valley area.
Bulf acknowledges that no public official has joined him in his crusade but said he learned to not be dismayed by initial rejection from his work with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, helping with the light rail in the capital city prior to retiring to Nevada County.
“As far as public funding, we don’t have the capacity in available revenues to tackle a project like that. We don’t see the return would ever pay off the investment,” Landon said. “But what you can do with private funding, it is a whole different story.”
Bulf envisions several stops in Grass Valley, such as off Bennett Street near downtown and in the Brunswick Basin, as well as Nevada City stops near the Northern Queen Inn and downtown. And his vision doesn’t stop with public transportation — he also envisions the railway as providing a utility route, running water, gas and fiber optics.
“I look at this as a utility,” he said. “It’s all about balancing infrastructure. Otherwise, we are dependent completely on the vehicle.”
And the tracks wouldn’t stop in Nevada City. As Bulf sees it, a second phase of construction would extend the line all the way through Royal Gorge and Squaw Valley, right into Tahoe City, alleviating Lake Tahoe’s traffic woes.
“People don’t like to fight traffic to go to their vacation venue, and then fight it again on the way back. That is just going to make them look elsewhere for their recreational activities,” Bulf said.
“But imagine putting a kayak on (a train) in Sacramento, transferring at Colfax and heading up to Tahoe.”
Bulf estimates that running an extension line to Tahoe would cost around another $600,000 — a lower amount than the first stretch due to less stops. But by that estimation, Bulf’s grand plan to add railways from Colfax’s Amtrak stop to Lake Tahoe through Grass Valley and Nevada City would carry at least a $1.5 billion price tag.
If local investment proves insufficient, Bulf’s backup plan is to seek foreign investors, he said. While he won’t mention any specific names, Bulf claims to have entertained potential investors from China and the United Arab Emirates.
“I want to see the local people wake up enough to invest in this as a local project to benefit everybody in this county,” he said.
“We could open this area economically and have people going to work.”
Bulf is cautious about concerns regarding foreign investment.
He envisions the railway as a cooperative, similar to the BriarPatch market, where local money would ensure that any foreign investors only had 49 percent interest.
“We need a team approach to solving issues ourselves,” Bulf said.
Bulf wants the project funded before the cost of materials or fuel increases and rejected the notion of his railway proposal having an uphill battle to win public opinion in light of California’s controversial and expensive high-speed rail project.
“This is low-speed and much more people oriented,” he said.
Beyond the hefty price tag, one of the biggest hurdles is securing the right-of-way rights from property owners along the proposed railway, Landon said.
“I don’t care if I have to go to every doorstep along (Highway) 174 for them to get the big picture,” Bulf said.
“I’m going to have to go out and spend a lot of my retirement time going door to door. And I don’t mind, because it needs to be done.”
Bulf sees many other opportunities as a result of his railway, including fostering economic development; an increased reliance on other forms of public transportation, such as buses; and even tie-ins to biomass plants.
But ultimately, he sees a need to sever a dependence on vehicles.
“My mother used to tell me not to put all my eggs in one basket,” Bulf said in reference to a reliance on trucking.
“That’s what they’ve done up here, and that basket is hurting, to say the least.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.