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Freight Rail Service Through Novato Could Start as Early as April

North Coast Rail Authority says track repairs are complete and federal inspectors have completed their work.

Freight trains carrying construction materials, wine and feed grains for dairy cows are expected to return to the North Bay as early as April along a 62-mile train corridor that snakes from Novato, east over the Petaluma River, along Highway 101 and up to Windsor.

The North Coast Railroad Authority has spent more than $60 million since 2007 fixing unsafe bridges, crossings signals and trackways, and the repairs are now complete, according to Mitch Stogner, executive director for the rail authority.

The Federal Railroad Administration shut down the rail line in 1998 after El Nino storms damaged tracks and crossing signals near intersections, Stogner said.

“The Federal Railroad Administration inspected the line in January and February, and we expect to hear from them this week on whether we’ve passed the test to run trains,” Stogner said. “We’ll start as soon as we get the green light.”

"Safety is the top priority for the Federal Railroad Administration, and we expect the railroad to adhere to all federal regulations," said Rob Kulat, a spokesperson for the administration.

Stogner said eventually the authority wants to expand the initial 62-mile freight corridor, running a 15-car train three round trips a week — to a 142-mile route from Willits in Mendocino County south to Novato, west to American Canyon in southern Napa County.

City engineers along the route are working with regional, state and federal authorities, including Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit officials, to make sure pedestrian and vehicle crossings at the tracks are safe. In Novato, there are crossings at such places as Grant and Olive avenues in the Old Town area.

Precautions include constructing drop-down gates at pedestrian crossings and building concrete medians in between opposite traffic lanes, to prevent U-turns, for example.

The North Coast Railroad Authority is in the process of finalizing an operating plan, working closely with cities along the rail corridors and with SMART, which owns the tracks.

“We own the corridor, and they have a lease that allows (the North Coast Railroad Authority) to operate freight service,” said Chris Coursey, community outreach manager for SMART. “We’re still negotiation the operating agreement that involves how they’ll operate (the train) and how our construction activities will impact their freight train operations.”

Coursey added that commuter rail service will take priority over freight. However, SMART service is not  expected to start until fall 2014. Plus, the passenger rail authority is experience a funding shortfall estimated and more than $100 million because of the sagging economy and lower-than-hoped returns from a sales tax measure approved by Marin and Sonoma county voters in 2008.

Stogner said he expects the environmental review for freight plans to be certified by the California Environmental Quality Act this month. 

In the draft report, concerns have been raised since 2009 by area residents about noise and air pollution in cities, safety, loss of habitat for wildlife, disrupting sensitive breeding areas for animals, pollution of waterways, loss of grasslands and wetlands and soil erosion.

The report stated potential benefits include reduction of cargo truck traffic on Highway 101, resulting in the decline of greenhouse gasses and less traffic and air congestion. 

The entire rail line is 316 miles long. It stretches up to Eureka and was originally used to transport old growth timber from Humboldt County, Stogner said.

Eileen Plunkett March 22, 2011 at 05:31 PM
Mike Arnold is NOT an opponent of trains per se, but he IS an opponent of the SMART project. It will not benefit Marin County at all. And now that they are fundless, everything is changing. Let's get it on the ballot and let the people, who now have had time to see the SMART Board in action, vote again.
Lloyd March 22, 2011 at 05:59 PM
You know the more I hear the more I want to know. I have a question for all. It is obvious that since we started this process and the ensuing election much has changed. Do we blindly go forward because years ago under, what we all seem to agree was, a different vision or representation of what the Smart train would be? Or do we take a look at the current reality and decide if we need to make changes to our premise? I am very much in favor of a train system that will get me to desired destinations and out of the car. However I am not sure if we build this project we will accomplish that goal or help to get commuters off 101. Perhaps now that we have had a chance to get a get a good look we can make a better informed decision. If the project still makes sense it should pass the muster of the electorate. I say lets put it to the test of confidence and not simply out of desperation stumble forward.
Jerry March 22, 2011 at 06:01 PM
The topic is freight service, but the "rub" is that freeway users don't pay for what they use -- passenger cars or freight trucks. Most fuel taxes come from fuel use on streets and roads, not freeways. The hugely expensive freeways are subsidized from fuel taxes from streets and roads. But even then roads still do not pay for themselves as study after study has shown for years. The subsidies are over 50%. That is a pretty expensive "benefit". Read the latest study here: http://www.uspirg.org/home/reports/report-archives/transportation/transportation2/do-roads-pay-for-themselves-setting-the-record-straight-on-transportation-funding Finally are North Bay freeway users getting a "benefit" when there is no other choice of transportation between cities? "Captives" is a more descriptive word. And “Freeways” are clearly not free.
Rick Fraites March 22, 2011 at 06:26 PM
'Bring on' a rail system that moves a minuscule number of commuters, or moves a very small amount of freight? But what the heck, as long as tax payers foot the bill it's good news for those who love the sound of train horns and the smell of diesel. Where's the real public benefit that will begin to match the hundreds of millions of tax dollars that has been thrown at these two rail systems...thus far? Former Novato Mayor, Bernie Meyers, has written a recent article for the Novato Patch concerning his observations, as a NCRA board member, of how the board majority functions, or doesn't. Mr. Meyers article should be read by anyone remotely interested in the NCRA's operations.
Jason Bulliet May 17, 2011 at 04:37 AM
Rick Frates you are so amazingly smart, and Bernie Meyers really thinks he is smart. Since you think he is so smart he must be brilliant! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Please run for mayor. You are the greatest thing since God!

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