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MIJ: Allan Hemphill: Environmental claims really NIMBYism
Thursday 6 Dec 2007, 07:00
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad

Staff Report
Article Launched: 12/06/2007 12:07:03 AM PSTAllan Hemphill

FOR MORE THAN 100 years, the North Coast railroad rumbled through Novato. It hauled redwood to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. It carried the legendary Sea Biscuit from his home near Willits to racetracks across the country. It treated visitors to spectacular scenery along the Eel River canyon.

When Southern Pacific announced plans to abandon the railroad during the 1980s, the Marin Board of Supervisors was the first to object. Supervisors lobbied so effectively that Congress passed legislation to begin acquisition of the entire line.

Now, Novato and Marin are in court to stop the railroad. They claim California Environmental Quality Act concerns, but make no mistake. Novato City Manager Dan Keen told the IJ: “I still do not see how the city of Novato benefits from freight.”

Of course, Novato benefits from freight. Everything in the city was brought by freight. If the freight was brought by truck, it caused more traffic, more carbon, more air pollution, more fuel use by far than freight brought by train.

NIMBYs, or the Not In My Backyarders, frequently have to dress up like CEQAs. That’s because the NIMBY argument generally doesn’t get anywhere in court. Masquerading as the California
Environmental Quality Act presents all sorts of opportunity for mischief. CEQA rules can be so complicated that lawyers have an easy time arguing that someone broke one or more of them.

Novato’s case claims emergency flood control work, repair of signals and replacement of existing railroad ties – which are being done with the required permits from state and federal agencies – harms the environment. Novato says CEQA requires a study of the entire railroad line to Eureka before any of this work can be done. Supervisors clamor for “cumulative impact” studies. This is another way of saying “stop the railroad.”

This railroad has been studied enough.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit conducted an environmental impact report the size of a phone book for $3.6 million. The North Coast Railroad Authority is spending $2.3 million on an EIR that will cover all aspects of train operation and must be certified before trains operate. SMART is spending $300,000 to $500,000 for a supplemental EIR. And, the NCRA has contracted for a full EIR covering the Eel River division, at a cost that will exceed $4 million. That’s more than $10 million in studies.

What are the real reasons for the lawsuit? Supervisor Steve Kinsey thinks it will bring “quiet zones” and a curfew imposed on when the trains can run. Supervisor Judy Arnold fears the Novato downtown redevelopment project and a new project near the tracks will be adversely impacted. One Novato councilwoman wants welded tracks to minimize the clackety-clack sound of railroad cars.

This lawsuit won’t affect any of the above. Quiet zones are discouraged by the Federal Railroad Administration and the California Public Utilities Commission as being more dangerous than sounding the train’s horn. Federal law says any city wanting quiet zones must pay for them and the added liability insurance. Time of day operation and capacity issues also are governed by federal law and the Surface Transportation Board. And most of the tracks in Novato already are welded, and the rest will be.

The railroad will be a good neighbor to the many jurisdictions it traverses. The NCRA has attended many public meetings, including two in Novato.

We were hit with this lawsuit before our EIR was done and before we had a chance to determine how best to deal with the public’s concerns. Our EIR will demonstrate the railroad provides significant environmental and health benefits. We know it will have a positive effect on traffic. State and federal governments have committed more than $100 million to acquire and restore this line.

We are committed to achieving the goals Marin helped establish two decades ago, and continuing the railroad’s century-long history of service to this region.

Allan Hemphill is chairman of North Coast Railroad Authority (

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