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Op-Ed: Can A Public Entity Be Saved From Ruin?

Novato resident Bernard Meyers calls for an independent audit of the North Coast Railroad Authority, for which he serves as a board member.

Editor's note: Bernard Meyers, a former Novato City Council member, is a member of the North Coast Railroad Authority board of directors, appointed by the Marin County Board of Supervisors. The views expressed in this opinion story are solely his own.

By Bernard Meyers

The North Coast Railroad Authority is an independent state entity in charge of the 310-mile freight rail line between American Canyon and Humboldt Bay, including the tracks that run through Novato.

NCRA’s board members are appointed by local Boards of Supervisors and do not answer to any authority. Virtually all of its funds come from taxpayers, including $60-plus million it recently spent rehabilitating the southern 61 miles of line to Windsor.

NCRA does not have a comprehensive strategic plan with measurable goals and objectives. Its management is badly in need of an outside review before it follows in Vallejo’s footsteps and declares bankruptcy:

  • Due to NCRA’s past actions, Caltrans considers NCRA as a High Risk Agency and does not let NCRA touch public funds under Caltrans’ jurisdiction without proof that the funds are properly spent. This has continued for the past decade and caused NCRA to incur more than $500,000 in extra expenses.
  • NCRA has had substantial budget deficits for years. Its financial situation is precarious at best, yet its private freight operator, Northwest Pacific (NWP) uses the line without paying a trackage fee.
  • NCRA gave NWP a "no bid" $1 million contract to do repair work outside Caltrans’ purview that was to take five months. It ended up costing more than $2.5 million and was finished a year late.
  • NCRA's lease with NWP can last a century, without meaningful oversight, conceivably without trackage payments, while taxpayers underwrite much of the risk.
  • There is no indication that the NCRA/NWP relationship is, or will be, fiscally prudent.

A prompt, comprehensive, outside evaluation/audit is required for the good of the taxpayers and to properly revive freight rail in Northern California. Otherwise a viable freight rail service envisioned when taxpayers purchased the line out of bankruptcy might never be.

Attached is a letter dated Jan. 15, 2013 from the Marin County Board of Supervisors to the NCRA, which has attached Meyers' memo of Nov. 14, 2012 to the NCRA Board. The next NCRA board meeting is Feb.13 at the Healdsburg City Hall.

Matt McCarron January 22, 2013 at 03:24 AM
Bernie has the most integrity of any elected or appointed official that I have come accross in the last 23 years living in Marin. If he has come to these conclusions, it is because he has done his homework. The authority should never be afraid of an outside review, unless they are doing something incorrectly.
Steve B January 22, 2013 at 04:27 AM
My impression is that the NCRA has had to put off making revenue because of all the delays from SMART. Whenever the tracks are open, they may start hauling.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr January 22, 2013 at 10:15 AM
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I already see those nice little freight rains going through Novato, so NCRA/NWP HAS started hauling. Who signed on with NCRA/NWP for a contract with no trackage fee? I want his name.
Tom MacDonald January 22, 2013 at 04:10 PM
As a former NCRA Board member, I served with Bernie. He is 100% correct in his analysis and recommendations. The ultimate solution is that the NCRA needs to be reorganized with a new mission and new governance. Its goal since formation by the state legislature in 1989 has been to provide freight service all the way from the Bay Area through the Eel River Canyon to Eureka. That is no longer realistic. Unfortunately, the NCRA has made numerous decisions in those 24 years that has left it with overwhelming debt and long term commitments. Under its current constitution the NCRA and its Board does not have the resources or the will to change course and extract itself from its commitments. The majority of the current NCRA Board has no viable plan. State or local authorities need to step in with new directions and reorganization.
Brant January 22, 2013 at 05:57 PM
So, who owns the tracks upon which the SMART trains will operate? As I understand it, SMART is paying to upgrade those tracks. And I thought I had heard Mansourian say that SMART owned the right-of-way for the tracks in which it was investing. But the above suggests that NCRA may own the tracks. If that is the case, would SMART have to also pay to use them??
Tom MacDonald January 22, 2013 at 07:58 PM
Brant- The tracks south of Healdsburg are owned by SMART and NCRA has a perpetual freight right-of-way. The tracks from Healdsburg to Eureka are owned by NCRA and SMART has a perpetual passenger right-of-way to Cloverdale. By legislative bill the two are required to cooperate in providing safe and compatible operations. As Bernie pointed out, NCRA spent $60 million to reopen the line for freight service from Lombard (where it connects to the national system) to Windsor. These capital improvements were made with State grants and were sufficient to allow slow moving freight service. Now, SMART is further upgrading over much of the same tracks to allow for faster passenger service. In 2011 the two parties entered into an extensive agreement the defined trackage fees, dispatch responsibilites, maitenance responsibilities and numerous other items. If the legislature or other powers ever decided to reorganize or dissolve NCRA, one possibility would be to give responsibility for the Marin and Sonoma operations to SMART. That would put the administration of freight, passenger and trails under one roof.
B Meyers January 23, 2013 at 03:19 PM
Thank you.
B Meyers January 23, 2013 at 03:20 PM
Thank you.
John Beach February 01, 2013 at 03:43 AM
Mr. MacDonald; What "new mission" would you suggest? From reading news postings for several years, I've been under the impression that, if left up to you and Mr. Meyers, the NCRA would have been shut down, and there would be no freight railroad today. Other NCRA Board Members and Staff seemed to have had different wishes, resulting in today's operating freight railroad.
Steve B February 08, 2013 at 07:10 AM
Hey Great One, Well, they run a few, but rarely. What I see on them is materials fir the track upgrades... They will start to make money when they start REGULARLY taking Sonoma's refuse up to Oregon and get plentiful gravel from Sonoma and Mendocino for roads and levees and stuff. Two trips a day is what they got permitted, right? I think they do two a week now. Your humble servant, Steve

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