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Feds Give OK for Freight Trains to Run Through Novato

Rail authority hopes for June start date, but still needs approval from city of Novato and SMART board.

Pretty soon, residents along the train tracks in Novato could hear the chugging of locomotives, the tooting of warning whistles and the clanging of crossing alarms. Maybe kids will be placing pennies on the tracks again, just like the old days.

Using the same tracks slated for use by 2014 by a controversial commuter rail line, freight trains will be running through Novato by mid-June pending approvals from the city of Novato and the local passenger rail board, according to the freight rail authority that has been working for years to use the tracks since they were deemed unusable in 1998.

North Coast Railroad Authority Chairman, Hal Wagenet announced in a press release that the Federal Railroad Administration has given the green light to restart freight service on the historic Northwestern Pacific rail line between Brazos Junction near Napa and the Sonoma County town of Windsor.

The tracks make an L-shaped route through Novato, starting at the Petaluma River and the Black Point area and heading due west along Highway 37 then north past the Novato Community Hospital, Old Town Novato and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance headquarters off San Marin Drive.

“I’m thrilled it will be running again,” said Dea Belrose, who one house away from the tracks in Black Point. “We have missed it and would love to see it back again.”

“The North Coast is going to join the rest of the country and the 21st century with efficient freight rail service,” said Jerry Peters, a Novato resident and train advocate. “The railroads in the U.S. now have something like 30 percent of the traffic they had when they were at their peak in the 1920s, but they’re doing it far more efficiently now. As gas prices inch up, it’s going to be more and more efficient.”

In a published order signed by Federal Railroad Administration Administrator, Joseph C. Szabo, the FRA said it was partially lifting the Emergency Order 21 that stopped all train service on the North Coast in 1998 following a series of El Nino storms. FRA’s announcement allows for freight service on a 62-mile stretch of railroad from Brazos Junction east to Highway 101 in Novato, and extending north along 101 through the cities of Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Windsor.

The tracks are eligible to be used immediately, but the North Coast Railroad Authority said will be mid-June before trains run regularly. Still needed are approval from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Board and the city of Novato.

The NCRA said in the release that it has invested more than $60 million since 2007 to repair 56 crossing signals, replace 50,000 crossties and 23,000 tons of ballast, shore-up levees in Schellville, repair 43 rail bridges and three movable bridges that traverse the Napa and Petaluma rivers between Windsor and the train connection with the Union Pacific (Brazos Junction/Lombard) south of Napa. 

NCRA leases the track to NWP Co., a private short-haul rail operator. According to NWP Co. President  John Williams, trains will make three round-trips per week hauling feed grains, wood products, building materials, wine and other general merchandise during the start-up phase.

Wagenet said the NCRA is planning to certify a $3 million environmental impact report in June that evaluates the effects of train operations on the Russian River Division of the line between Brazos Junction and Willits. NCRA also must finalize agreements with SMART and the city of Novato prior to start-up of train operations.

Wagenet said the impacts from the return of freight trains are overwhelmingly positive. One freight car will remove four trucks from Highway 101 through the affected areas, and one gallon of diesel fuel will move a ton of freight over 400 miles, according to NCRA statistics.

“Freight trains boost the local economy, are good for the environment, and good energy policy,” Wagenet said.

Rick Fraites May 10, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Such a waste of tax payer's money to prop up this other rail boondoggle. The real target for this funky freight operation is the Eel River and Humboldt Bay...The Eel for a rock quarry and Humboldt Bay for an Oakland-like container port. These two locations are where the profits are to be found, but the NCRA will need a massive infusion of federal dollars (our $$$) to pay for the construction and rehabilitation of a rail line up the Eel River canyon and to Humboldt Bay. The NCRA's lobbyist will have his work cut out for him, but he did help to secure $60 million to rehab track for this first phase. So, getting 10-20 times that amount from Uncle Sam's pocket will be a challange. If the NCRA can demonstrate to the Feds that the rail line can actually haul freight without coming off the track, this will assist the lobbyist to obtain those precious tax dollars. The Novato leg of the line is all show and little go. Aside for the occassional feed delivery for our ranchers in West Marin, what else will justify the enormous federal gift to the first phase of this rail line? I guess we will have to wait and see just how much this rail line will improve our local economy. (hint: don't hold your breath). In the meanwhile, the rail buffs, and those lost in the nostalgia of their youthful train fascination will be in round-house heaven as the diesel spewing freight train puffs its way through Novato. For the rest of us...well, just be careful when you cross the tracks.
SamS May 10, 2011 at 06:15 PM
I could not agree more with Jason and Steve!!! Do peole not realize the noise and pollution from automobiles and trucks? Go stand near highway 101 for a minute and try to have a phone conversation. The noise from all roads and highways goes on 24 hours a day and never stops making noise pollution and air pollution. And yet somehow the trains are the problem? This train wil not be hated by all - just the same old complainers that gripe about anything and everything that occurs in the town. Like it or not, Novato is a City and is part of the San Francisco Bay Area , which has millions of people. there are services, infrastructure and other thigns that need to be provided. If you want to be in a town that never changes, grows, or improves - then you need to move to another part of the country where there is one house every few miles. Grow your wheat and corn and play your harmonica at night.
Rick Fraites May 10, 2011 at 06:35 PM
The NCRA rail matter isn't an either-or situation. People can be opposed to this federally financed rail system without having to move out of town. This isn't about change , growth or any other red herring that can be fished up. The freight train is coming to haul local freight. The freight trains will roll through Novato a few times a week. But, if the NCRA is able to secure massive federal funding, Novato will be experiencing several train trips a week rolling through with rock from the Eel River canyon and shipping containers from the proposed Humboldt container port.
David Rollison May 11, 2011 at 12:05 AM
I say let the Freight Trains roll! Imagine the amount of money and environmental wear and tear we will save in this country if we bring back rail travel and transport.
Jason Bulliet May 17, 2011 at 04:43 AM
Rick Fraites you are so smart. You can solve the world financial crisis from your home computer! You are amazing and wonderful. I bet you are not a NIMBY. You are a true environmentalist. We love your self sacrifice by showing that what you want is for the common good. I can't say enough how smart and wonderful you truly are. Bernie Meyers is my hero too!

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