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.