Hitting the trail

These shelters are a distinctive feature along the Napa Valley Vine Trail.

Work to create a $10 million, 9.4-mile Napa Valley Vine Trail segment between St. Helena and Calistoga continues despite a new pothole in the path forward, with deadlines looming.

The Napa Valley Transportation Authority (NVTA) must have a project ready to build by early 2021 or lose a $6.1 million state grant for construction. Local dollars are paying for environmental and design work that transportation officials say needs to get underway.

With time of the essence, a lone bid received for environmental and design work came in higher than expected. There’s an $800,000 shortfall.

On Wednesday, the NVTA Board of Directors voted to spend $650,000 already on hand to do a portion of the work, buying time to try to fill the funding gap.

“This is a no-win in terms of not having certainty as to what is happening,” said NVTA Board Member and county Supervisor Belia Ramos, adding she would vote “yes” to keep options open.

The NVTA can front the $800,000 in the short-term. It is looking to Napa County, St. Helena, Calistoga and the nonprofit Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition to pay the bill in the long run.

“Unless we get (a commitment) in writing, we will not have the resources to move forward,” NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said.

The Napa Valley Vine Trail is to run 47 miles from Vallejo to Calistoga, with a 12-mile segment in the Napa/Yountville area already built. The St. Helena/Calistoga segment is to run near vineyards and hug the forested mountains of Bothe-Napa Valley State Park as it links the two small, upvalley cities.

Chuck McMinn founded the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition which is spearheading the Vine Trail vision. He told NVTA directors he recently heard that 80 to 90 percent of projects come in over-budget and late because of unforeseen circumstances and human optimism when making the original estimates.

“Keep in mind the end results,” McMinn said. “This is going to be a fantastic asset that lasts for hundreds of years in this valley.”

The existing Vine Trail segment between Napa and Yountville came in late and over budget, McMinn said, adding that he thinks people agree in hindsight this was a good investment.

“It will be the case two or three years from now when the Vine Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga is built we will all feel this is worth the money as well,” he said.

The Vine Trail Coalition wants to move full speed ahead and is willing to help, he said. It will put up $200,000 for the shortfall, above and beyond the $2.4 million it has already committed to the project.

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“I think we just need to suck it up, come up with $800,000 and feel good about the fact we’re moving the project forward,” he said.

NVTA Board chairman and Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said he backs the Vine Trail and Calistoga is a bike-friendly community. But it is a small jurisdiction, and to keep the $6.1 million grant local jurisdictions are having to give more and more, he said.

Vine Trail advocates had originally hoped construction of a St. Helena/Calistoga segment would start in 2017. Then right-of-way controversies, a debate over having walkers and bikers near vineyards and insurance liability challenges arose, causing delays.

Miller said the NVTA Board of Directors faced a difficult decision with the new funding shortfall.

“I just want to hand it to the team, because nobody wants to give up on this project,” she said. “But we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how we should have the right-of-way completed and a better concept of budget before we go after competitive funds in the future.”

Yountville Mayor John Dunbar said his city has benefited from its well-used Vine Trail segment, adding he thinks St. Helena and Calistoga will also reap value from their segment.

“A lot of us deal with projects that aren’t fully funded and we go forward, more than just with faith, but knowing we have some risks and we try to make sure we figure it out,” he said.

No major capital projects are neat and tidy, Dunbar said. But it would be shortsighted, despite the frustrations, to stop funding the Vine Trail.

“Overall, this is going to be a project that benefits the entire valley,” Dunbar said.

RSA+ of Napa was the lone bidder for the Vine Trail St. Helena/Calistoga segment environmental and design work. It bid $2.5 million, compared to the engineer’s estimate of $750,000. The two parties then negotiated an amount to $1.5 million, an NVTA report said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded the $6.1 million Active Transporation Program grant to the NVTA for the Vine Trail St. Helena/Calistoga segment in October 2015. The California Transportation Commission subsequently verified the award that came with a construction deadline.

At the time, Vine Trail officials said the Vine Trail Coalition would pay $2.4 million. St. Helena, Calistoga and Napa County were to pay $650,000.

That $650,000 from local jurisdictions would be related to the Measure T countywide, half-cent transportation sales tax. Although Measure T itself pays for no new construction, it requires jurisdictions to pledge the equivalent of 6.67 percent of annual Measure T revenue to build bike paths.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.