PLEASANTON -- Early critics called it a pipe dream for outdoors lovers -- an off-road hiking and riding trail winding for more than 30 miles through the fast-growing East Bay suburbs.
Thirty years later, though, the East Bay Regional Park District has just finished the last gap in the Iron Horse Regional Trail between Pleasanton and Concord, reinforcing its legacy as a pioneering project in the national urban trail movement.
Initially, the trail along an 1891 railroad right of way was largely seen as a path for hard-core hikers, cyclists and occasional horse riders.
But the 32-mile trail from Highway 4 in Concord to Santa Rita Road in Pleasanton has gone mainstream, adopted by commuters, schoolchildren, shoppers, and people doing errands -- not just fitness fans in hiking boots and Spandex riding clothes.
People make more than a million trips a year on the trail, park officials said.
"The Iron Horse Trail was one of the first early trails (to be built) along railroad right of ways in the 1980s. Now there are more than 21,000 miles across the nation," said Barry Bergman, western regional trails manager for the Rails to Trails Conservancy. "The trail has proven it serves a large cross section of the community."
The flat trail connects 10 communities, three BART stations, many schools, shopping centers and the large Bishop Ranch and Hacienda business parks.
Peak trail use times have come to mirror peak use times on nearby Interstate 680.
The evolving variety of users has surprised those who have worked on the trail for three decades along the abandoned Southern Pacific line.
"The early vision was a way to get from park to park, but we see that many people see it as an alternative to get around without a car." said Bob Doyle, the park district's general manager. Eventually, the trail will be extended another 22 miles, with new segments added in Martinez and Livermore.
Daniel Tribble, a college student without a car, moved to a Pleasanton apartment earlier this year because it's just off the new Iron Horse trail segment he uses to walk to BART's Dublin-Pleasanton station. Although that new section won't be dedicated formally until Tuesday, users aren't waiting.
"The trail makes it very simple and easy to get to BART," said Tribble, a student at Cal State East Bay in Hayward.
Gary Irwin sometimes rides his bike on the trail from near his Pleasant Hill home to his job at a Kaiser Medical Center in Pleasanton. "It's a way to stay healthy," he said. "There is a whole world out there on the trail that people in cars don't know about."
East Bay transportation officials are evaluating whether to establish bike-share stations along the trail where people can check out bikes.
"Imagine hooking up the BART stations along the route with a bike share station," said Randy Iwasaki, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority's executive director.
The path to develop and fund the trail was not always easy. Early on, many neighbors along the proposed route worried they would lose privacy and be more vulnerable to noise and crime.
Some current trail neighbors, however, view its proximity as a benefit, not a risk.
"We don't feel unsafe," said Cara Chase, of Alamo, whose backyard fence abuts the trail right of way. "My children have been able to walk to school on the trail. I feel the trail connects our neighborhood."
She said the sound of joggers and walkers reassures her that she is part of a community and a flow of activity.
Park district police said the Iron Horse trail has a low crime rate -- about a dozen and a half reported robberies, batteries and indecent exposures the past two years, said Capt. Mark Ruppenthal. But users sometimes complain about the risks of collisions between pedestrians and cyclists.
Beverly Lane, a park district board member, said it has taken persistence to build the trail with cooperation and financial help from two counties, several cities, water and sewer agencies, and state and federal funding agencies.
Park district officials said they don't have an estimate of the trail development costs because several cities, agencies and developers built separate sections.
"Once we got a trail portion built, people liked it," said Lane, part of a citizens group founded in 1984 to push for the Iron Horse Trail. "Then, people would be in favor of closing the gaps."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
The East Bay Regional Park District will dedicate the last segment of the Iron Horse Regional Trail between Pleasanton and Concord in a ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Creekside Park, 5653 Stoneridge Drive, Pleasanton.