Marin Co. judge halts NCRA track repairs; anti-train Novato happy
- Published Friday, January 25, 2008, by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Future North Coast rail repairs on hold
February trial will decide extent of environmental review necessary
By Nathan Halverson
The Press Democrat
A Marin County judge Thursday approved repairs currently under way
to a 62-mile stretch of railroad tracks from Napa to Windsor, but
halted future work until the resolution of a legal battle over plans
to restore freight service in the North Bay.
A trial set to begin next month will determine the scope of
environmental studies that must be completed before the North Coast
Railroad Authority can begin operating freight trains on the rail
The decision delays the resumption of freight service until the end
of summer, at the earliest, said Mitch Stogner, executive director
of the North Coast Railroad Authority.
But the project could be postponed four to five years, depending on
the outcome of the Feb. 26 trial, Stogner said.
Superior Court Judge James Ritchie must determine whether the
NCRA is required to complete an environmental impact study for the
entire 300-mile rail line, which runs from Napa to Eureka. The rail
authority plans to study the environmental impact along a 142-mile
stretch from Napa to Willits.
The NCRA already has started compiling a report for the smaller
stretch and expects it will be complete in June. It plans to
eventually extend service as far north as Eureka, but has no timeline
for doing so.
If the judge rules the report must analyze environmental impact all
the way to Eureka, the project could be delayed for years, Stogner
"If we were required to do an EIR for the entire line, including the
Eel River Canyon, we will be on the shelf for the next four to five
years at least," Stogner said.
In Thursday's ruling, Ritchie indicated he thought the whole section
of the railroad must be included in the environmental impact report.
"The 'whole' project -- whether broken up geographically, by phases
of construction and operation, or otherwise -- must be considered in
CEQA analysis," Ritchie wrote in his ruling.
The California Environmental Quality Act, CEQA, requires new projects
to study the impact on air quality, noise pollution and other parts
of the environment.
The city of Novato sued to stop railroad repairs and service until
a full-length environmental study is completed.
"We are pleased with the ruling," said Novato City Manager Daniel
Keen. "There are not going to be any trains running on those tracks
The city is legally entitled to a study evaluating the impact of
increased railroad traffic that could occur when service returns to
Humboldt County, Keen said.
Freight supporters believe rail service will lower shipping costs
and take trucks off Highway 101, reducing traffic and air pollution.
In the meantime, the NCRA will continue with about $15 million in
repairs to signal crossings, bridges and levies, Stogner said.
Thursday's ruling placed an injunction on the NCRA from starting work
on the final two repair jobs, which would replace damaged railroad
ties and update electrical circuits on three bridges. The injunction
likely will delay railroad service two months -- not resuming until
September -- if the NCRA wins its case and is not required to
complete an environmental impact study on the full length of the rail
line, Stogner said.
"We can demonstrate the process we followed was appropriate," he said.
"Our goal and our schedule is still to have that 62-mile section
repaired and operational this summer."
Freight service was halted in 2001 after federal railway regulators
ruled the route was unsafe and required costly repairs.
You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 707-521-5494 or
[BATN: See also:
NIMBY Novato vs. NCRA train battle: judge issues stop-work order