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Opponents using NCRA freight projections to delay, kill SMART

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  • 7/10 Marin IJ
    Published Tuesday, July 10, 2007, in the Marin Independent Journal Officials say more freight trains could pass through Novato By Rob Rogers Novato and Marin
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 15, 2007
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      Published Tuesday, July 10, 2007, in the Marin Independent Journal

      Officials say more freight trains could pass through Novato

      By Rob Rogers

      Novato and Marin County officials say the Sonoma Marin Area Rail
      Transit board greatly underestimated the number of trains that will
      pass through downtown Novato under a plan for restored freight train
      service.

      SMART's 2006 environmental impact report declared that a maximum of
      six freight trains per week would pass through Novato.

      But a June 19 memo by Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North
      Coast Railroad Authority, said the agency expects up to 32 freight
      trains a week to use the route between Willits and Lombard - a
      national rail interchange near Napa - which travels through downtown
      Novato.

      "It's difficult to predict what, exactly, the number of freight trains
      would be because there are so many variables," said Stogner, whose
      agency received a promise of $43.2 million in state and federal
      transportation funds in November 2006. "The estimate (of six trains
      per week) we provided SMART in May of 2006 was based on what we knew
      at the time."

      The latest estimate has raised eyebrows among Marin County and city
      officials, who are now asking for a new environmental analysis.

      "I'm concerned about the increased impact of freight trains when
      you're going from six trains a week to 32," said Supervisor Judy
      Arnold. "There has to be another analysis. ... Those trains are
      going to be running through Novato's newly restored $10 million
      downtown."

      SMART Executive Director Lillian Hames said her board had already
      hired a contractor to perform a study based on the new information.

      "SMART is committed to doing an environmental analysis of the impact
      of freight on passenger rail service," Hames said. "We're moving
      forward with that now."

      Yet the number of freight trains could increase even further if, as
      planned, the state rail authority extends its route to Eureka,
      carrying freight from a proposed container port in Humboldt County and
      new rock quarry at Island Mountain near the Eel River. The trains
      also could carry garbage from Sonoma County through Novato to a
      disposal site in Nevada or Utah.

      Freight service along the 142-mile route between Lombard and Willits
      is slated to begin by the end of 2008, according to the authority.
      Service ended in 2001 after federal rail authorities declared the line
      unsafe. Advocates say restored service could help save fuel and
      reduce truck traffic on Highway 101.

      The revelation prompted Novato City Manager Dan Keen to ask SMART for
      a new analysis of the environmental impact of freight service in Marin
      County.

      The Novato City Council will consider the issue at its Tuesday meeting
      and hold a public forum on the matter July 19. In addition, Arnold, a
      former Novato council member, will ask her board to endorse Keen's
      letter at the Board of Supervisors' meeting Tuesday.

      "From six to 30 -- that's a big switch in terms of the impact for
      Novato," said City Councilman Jim Leland. "There are eight crossings
      in Novato where the trains will have to sound their horns under new
      federal regulations. Things could be very noisy in town."

      In addition to the issue of freight traffic frequency, SMART's 2006
      environmental report also declared the trains' length to be 12 cars
      each. In fact, according to Stogner's memo, the length of the
      authority's trains would range from 25 to 65 cars.

      In addition to the issue of freight traffic frequency, SMART's 2006
      environmental report also declared the trains' length to be 12 cars
      each. In fact, according to Stogner's memo, the length of the
      authority's trains would range from 25 to 65 cars.

      Hired in September 2006, that operator, the Northwestern Pacific
      Railroad Co., includes Woodside Consulting Group of Palo Alto,
      Evergreen Natural Resources of Oroville and Berg Holdings of Novato.

      According to the company's business plan, its directors expect to
      restore rail service between Lombard and Willits -- including the
      replacement or repair of 53 grade crossings, 38 bridges, 50,000
      railroad ties and 62 miles of track -- at a cost of $42.6 million.

      Company officials expect to ship 1,800 to 2,000 carloads of freight
      annually between Lombard and Willits, with principal shippers
      including Standard Structures, Mead Clark, Diablo Timber, Dairyman's
      Co-Op and Hunt and Behrens.

      Northwestern Pacific officials also expect to secure a contract with
      Sonoma County to transport about 4,056 carloads of solid waste
      annually -- at a cost of $2.02 million -- to a disposal site in Nevada
      or Utah. Eventually, the freight trains could begin hauling Marin's
      trash as well, the business plan states.

      Extending rail service north to South Fork could cost $108 million,
      according to the company's plan. However, Northwestern Pacific
      believes the work would be worthwhile, because it would provide access
      to the Island Mountain quarry, in an area inaccessible by truck. The
      company expects annual revenues from quarry freight to equal $30
      million.

      The plan has been vigorously opposed by Friends of the Eel River, a
      Humboldt County environmental group that believes the quarry proposal
      could add another 10 freight trains a day to the route.

      Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties narrowly defeated a half-cent
      sales tax to pay for SMART service in 2006. The SMART board had hoped
      to return the issue to the ballot in 2008. In his June 19 memo,
      however, Stogner said the SMART board was worried that news of the
      additional freight trains could delay a vote on the tax and asked rail
      officials to hold off on releasing information about the new freight
      numbers.

      Despite the time and expense of a new environmental study, opponents
      of the SMART project say the agency needs to know how additional
      freight trains will affect Marin.

      "From a legal point of view, SMART is obligated to do an environmental
      study based on the number of freight trains NCRA will ultimately be
      operating during the next 20 years, all the way to Port Eureka," said
      Mike Arnold, co-chairman of the Marin Coalition for Effective
      Transportation.

      That's a much larger analysis than the state rail authority is
      prepared to conduct, Stogner said, adding that his agency would have
      to conduct an entirely new environmental study should the port or
      quarry plans become a reality.

      "Our estimates are only for freight traffic at the south end of the
      line," Stogner said. "What happens north of Willits is too
      speculative at this point. It's not forseeable. If it comes to pass,
      we'll have to have another environmental document."

      But Supervisor Arnold wants any environmental analysis of the project
      to be as comprehensive as possible.

      "The city of Novato has asked for a supplemental EIR," Arnold said.
      "I think we may need something bigger than a supplement."

      Both the railroad authority and SMART will share use of the tracks
      connecting Marin with Sonoma County. Stogner could not say whether
      freight trains would have to run at night to accommodate SMART's
      passenger trains.

      "We have to have an operational agreement with SMART," Stogner said.
      "We'll be sharing the tracks with the passenger operation, just as is
      the case in other parts of the country."

      Stogner insisted that the freight project had changed little from its
      inception, and that concern over the number of freight trips through
      the county was misplaced.

      "What you're hearing now is a small group who is opposed to train
      service, who always has been and always will be, and they've revved up
      their propaganda machine," Stogner said.

      Because the North Coast Railroad Authority is a state agency, neither
      county nor city officials have jurisdiction over its activities. But
      Supervisor Arnold said the county is not without recourse should the
      prospect of restored freight trains become a cause for concern.

      "We can always contact our elected representatives," Arnold said.
      "They're the ones who appropriate money for this project."

      Marin supervisors will discuss plans for increased freight operation
      during a 10 a.m. meeting Tuesday in Room 330 of the Civic Center in
      San Rafael. The Novato City Council will discuss the same issue at a
      6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday. The council will also hold a public forum
      on the matter at 6:30 p.m. July 19. Both meetings will take place at
      Novato Unified School District headquarters, 1015 Seventh St.


      Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at rrogers@...
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