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Coast Guard policy threatens to increase SMART costs

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  • 8/23 Santa Rosa Press
    Published Tuesday, August 23, 2005, in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat SMART says rail bridges needed Coast Guard orders to remove unused spans would quash plans
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 23, 2005
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      Published Tuesday, August 23, 2005, in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat

      SMART says rail bridges needed
      Coast Guard orders to remove unused spans would quash plans to revive
      freight service

      By Tobias Young

      The return of rail freight service to the North Bay may suffer a
      setback because of Coast Guard orders to remove Petaluma and Napa
      river railroad bridges that haven't been used in years.

      The Coast Guard has put the owner of the bridges, Sonoma-Marin Area
      Rail Transit, on notice that the bridges are in violation of permits
      that require their removal if not regularly used.

      The commission, also known as SMART, hopes to create a light-rail
      passenger service on the line from Cloverdale to Larkspur. The North
      Coast Rail Authority also wants to eventually re-establish freight
      service on the line.

      One bridge under the Highway 101 overpass on the Petaluma River, known
      as the Haystack Railroad Bridge, would have to be replaced anyway as
      part of a project upgrade if passenger rail is authorized and
      financed, said Lillian Hames, general manager of the commission.

      The loss of the Haystack Bridge wouldn't interfere with passenger
      service, she said. But it would dash the hopes of the North Coast
      Rail Authority of renewing freight service on the corridor, officials
      said.

      The removal of other bridges, the Black Point Railroad Bridge near
      Highway 37 at the mouth of the Petaluma River and another on the Napa
      River a few miles below the city of Napa -- would also be setbacks to
      freight service because their losses would cut the railroad off from
      other regions, officials said.

      The bridges swing sideways to allow barges and boats to pass when not
      in use. When a train comes, the bridges swing across the river to
      connect to tracks on each side.

      The bridges haven't been used regularly since 1998, according to the
      Coast Guard. Hames said the last time any freight service operated on
      the corridor was 2001.

      The bridges are the target of increasing complaints from commercial
      barge operators because they are difficult to pass, restrict the size
      of barges on the river and operators have to pay for damage every time
      they hit them, said David Sulouff, the chief of the bridge section of
      the 11th Coast Guard District.

      "Had this not been a hot spot for complaints from waterway users, it
      probably wouldn't be such a big issue, but it is now," Sulouff said.
      "The Coast Guard is on record of reminding the bridge owner to remove
      the bridges. Right now it looks like it's about five years overdue."

      Hames said she is asking for 90 days to respond to the Coast Guard's
      Aug. 9 letter, instead of the 30 days the Coast Guard requested. She
      expects negotiations over the bridges to continue, and said there is
      no risk the commission will have to immediately remove any bridges.

      "We want to work with the Coast Guard, the freight operators and barge
      operators to come up with a solution to meet most of everybody's needs
      and come up with a long-term solution," she said.

      The commission is hoping voters in Sonoma and Marin counties will
      approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase in the November 2006
      election to raise an estimated $660 million over 20 years for
      passenger rail.

      Under the most optimistic scenario, including voter approval of the
      sales tax measure, passenger rail wouldn't start until 2009.

      Improving the tracks, building 14 rail stations and replacing bridges
      and trestles to meet passenger-level standards would cost about $340
      million, Hames said. Annual operating costs would run $10 million
      with diesel fuel or $12 million for biodiesel, she said.

      Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy, who also is on the 12-member
      SMART commission, said he thinks the loss of the Haystack Bridge would
      hurt chances of reviving freight or passenger service.

      He said Congress opened the doors for up to $5 million in federal
      funds for SMART in a transportation bill signed by President Bush last
      week. And the North Coast Rail Authority is also getting federal
      financial support to get back on its feet, he said.

      "It seems that an agency with the federal government would be working
      at cross-purposes with what Congress is trying to achieve along this
      rail corridor," Healy said. "Removing the bridge would be fatal to
      what we're trying to achieve on the corridor."

      The Coast Guard is eyeing a total of seven bridges in the Bay Area for
      removal, including one at Corte Madera Creek in Marin County and
      others in San Mateo County, Sulouff said.

      Commercial traffic on the Petaluma River -- mostly gravel, concrete
      products, oyster shells and other products -- has increased
      substantially in recent years, Sulouff said.

      Companies like Pomeroy, Dutra and Jerico Products use the river
      regularly.

      Pomeroy uses Jerico to transport barges carrying cargo such as
      concrete bridge beams, said Ron Virzi, Pomeroy controller.

      If the bridges were removed, it would help because the company could
      use bigger barges with few encumbrances, Virzi said. But if railroad
      freight traffic resumed, Pomeroy would be able to ship products by
      rail as well, he said.

      "It's kind of a two-edged sword," he said.
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