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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.

Lewis H. Clarke March 17, 2011 at 02:28 AM
I can't wait until they start running the trains again in Marin. Rail is the most efficient mode of moving heavy loads by far ahead of trucks. For people also, rail is the future; get off of 101!! Lewis H.
S. March 17, 2011 at 02:33 AM
I'm thrilled about trains coming through Novato again! I live very near the tracks near Slade Park behind the hospital. I just took a walk today and noticed how good everything is looking, the tracks are clear and ready. Whoo-hoo!
Rick Fraites March 17, 2011 at 03:00 AM
"....the North Coast Rail Authority has spent more than $60 million since 2007 fixing...." Yes, the NCRA has 'spent' the $6o million+, but most of that sum has been provided by the American taxpayer.
Lloyd March 17, 2011 at 05:32 AM
Using rail to move freight will take trucks off 101, is cost effective, better for the environment and helps us eliminate some of the gridlock in the Novato Narrows. It doesn't have the need to get commuters on time to their destinations and can make do because of limited use with a one track system. That said the "smart train" is still not the answer for our commute needs. The failure of a integrated user friendly system to get commuters out of their cars requires an entirely different criteria for success. I recently heard from a Smart Board member that they never anticipated the shortfall of funds so the application for federal train funds was never made. I wonder if that is the case why the smart board doesn't make application for those funds to both bridge the funding gap and extend the line to Larkspur? I believe rail is the best way to provide commuters an option. This project unfortunately is not the right solution.
John Sammons March 17, 2011 at 01:32 PM
"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." It is about time that this service started again given the traffic on 101 and the cost of fuel for trucks. Seems that a train can move more freight at a much less cost than trucks. Regarding the environmental impacts - doesn't the same apply to SMART ? From what I read they will be operating more trains than the NWP.
Eileen Plunkett March 17, 2011 at 05:25 PM
It is my understanding that SMART never was eligible for Federal funds and SMART has told so many lies over the years who knows if what they are saying now is true. It is, was and always will be an unnecessary train for Marin County and now with all that is happening voters should be permitted to have it on the ballot again so it can be defeated as it should have been in 2008.
SamS March 17, 2011 at 05:59 PM
Trains are great!!! I cannot wait for them to start up again - for freight and for passenger service! I guarantee you that the environmental impact for cars is way worse that any train system. You have to include all the impacts to produce the cars, use the cars, dispose fo the cars, all the roads beyond the freeways needed to support cars, parking lots, gas stations, truck that bring fuel to gas stati0ns. The impacts from automobiles far exceeds any impacts from trains. Why would you not want Smart? The tracks are built, no additonal land is needed? Do we really want a transportation system that is singular? So, you are saying that the freeway and cars is the only type of transporation sytstem that is need for two counties with a population of over 750,000? that is crazy. Have you been to other parts of the world where there are trains, metro lines, ferries, busses and cars? A mixture of transporation alternatives is the best solution - rather than being dependant on one freeway and single use cars. Oh, that's right, I forgot- you are opposed to Smart for housing reasons.... well that explaiins alot.
John Sammons March 17, 2011 at 06:22 PM
One freight car removes 4 big rigs from Highway 101. One gallon of diesel can move 1 ton of freight over 400 miles. Trains are good for the environment, good energy policy, and good for the economy. A public/private partnership, in which the public sector invests in a rail corridor the public owns, and the private sector operates the trains and maintains the line, is a model that works throughout the United States. This Public/Private rail partnership has been touted by the Obama Administration in Washington, DC as one of the most cost-effective and efficient methods of promoting environmentally friendly goods movement throughout the United States. Rail transportation is experiencing an exciting renaissance, and the NWP rail corridor is an ideal candidate for public investment in a priceless public asset.
SamS March 17, 2011 at 06:30 PM
Right on John ! Could not have said it better myself!!!
Bob Schram March 17, 2011 at 06:37 PM
We are happy that the train is coming and we live very close to the tracks. We need to get the trucks off the hwy! Keep our fingers crossed that SMART does not throw anymore barriers up! With the smart train which we would like see running but the $$ is not there and it will be a long time we suspect! Why are they saying they need all these improvement on bridges etc since the NCA has spent 60 million +. I hope someone can explain it.
Jerry March 17, 2011 at 11:04 PM
SMART will run south of the Ignacio Wye and NCRA will not, so SMART has to do the bridges and tunnels on that part of the rail line. Also NCRA will run heavier, longer trains, while SMART will run shorter, lighter, faster trains. Because of this the track and bridge requirements may differ at certain locations along the route. SMART also has to build a bike and people pathway nearby and NCRA does not. It will be nice to finally have some of the advantages of rail service that the rest of the state and the rest of the world enjoy.
Lloyd March 17, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Jerry I suggest you read the following article that just came out. "SMART to Consider Delaying Opening of North Novato Station" It also goes on to state that the bike & hiking path are also being partially deferred. (I believe that will be the Marin part of the project) I know everyone wants a real train service so the question I ask is are you going to drive from San Marin or West Novato or Downtown to name a few to the Hamilton station to park and take the train to San Rafael or northbound? Others talk about rail service in other parts of the country being wonderful. Absolutely correct! I grew up in New York City where there is a superb train system. Too many people have made this argument of either being in favor of or against "the train". I believe the question is why aren't we building a train that has an adequate number of stops and destinations? BTW every example of a successful train system cited relies on at least a two track system that allows more directional capacity which is critical to moving commuters during the rush hour times. One more minor comment. It would really make sense to have at the very least a possible, achievable, even long term plan, to reach San Francisco be it by bus or train with a hub at Larkspur to continue on.
Rick Fraites March 19, 2011 at 07:35 PM
It will be a cold day in....before this rail system provides $60 million in public benefits. Is the real goal of the rail line to move a small amount of freight, on a single track, between two/three counties in Northern California? Isn't there a nice rock quarry located up the Eel River Canyon that can only be accessed by the currently abondoned rail line? It seems that the old rail line kept breaking apart and falling in the Eel River. If a new rail line could be built to reach the rock quarry....well, there's $$$ in that rock! Trouble is, it would cost a fortune to build a rail line up the canyon of the mighty Eel River. The line would have to be safe enough to put a stop to engines, rail cars and train tracks from again, falling in the river. That level of sophisticated engineering and construction could prove to be a little costly. But....if $60 million in tax payer's money could be had, how about $600 million?
Jerry March 22, 2011 at 03:41 AM
Gee, $60 million is a lot of money to me. But in the world of transportation funding $60 million is pocket lint. Take a look -- The newly completed 8 mile long pair of HOV lanes thru San Rafael -- $133 million. The modification of the Airport Blvd. interchange in Santa Rosa is now estimated at $46 million. The new Rainer undercrossing at 101 in Petaluma: between $75 - $109 million. And the winner is the Novato Narrows project: 16 miles of a pair of HOV lanes, some frontage roads and a couple or three overpasses totals $748 million! That is a total expenditure of over one billion dollars minimum -- and all we will have to show for it are a hand-full of overpasses, and 24 miles of two additional HOV lanes. And we haven't covered the rest of the 101 work in Sonoma County. With fuel taxes of $0.36/gal it will take decades of cold days in..... to pay for this highway work. Bring on the rail system.
Lloyd March 22, 2011 at 05:46 AM
Amazing how much asphalt prices have gone up. Perhaps the highways are lined with gold.
Mike Arnold March 22, 2011 at 03:42 PM
Jerry ignores the cost per beneficiary. Very few will benefit from SMART. With ridership now projected to be under 3,000 riders per day, that's 1,500 people as most will do round trips. $600 million for 1,500 people. Care to estimate how many people and how frequently they benefit from the highway widening project? Therein lies the rub.
SamS March 22, 2011 at 04:35 PM
the "rub" is that we cannot rely on one freeway and single use cars as our entire tranist system. the "rub is that cars and freeways use SO MUCH more fuel and create SO MUCH more environmental impact on the region and the planet. and they cost billions of dollars to run, build and maintain. We need to get our of a a single use car and freeway transporstion system.. it can last, it wont last.. and it is way more expensive in the long run. But we all know Mike has been the leadng opponent to trains for decades.... so it is not a new argument - it never will be. I want along term solution to transportation issues - that has more tha cars, busses and freeways in the equation.
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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