Capdiamont\’s Weblog


MIJ: In search of straight talk about freight
Sunday 23 Dec 2007, 09:12
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad

Staff Report
Article Launched: 12/23/2007 12:03:59 AM PSTBE CAREFUL what you wish for.

A legal battle has erupted over the North Coast Railroad Authority’s dream of eventually running freight trains from Humboldt County on tracks through Novato and then east.

The rail authority has indicated up to 32 trains pulling as many as 60 cars could roll through Novato once freight service is revived. That estimate is far greater than what was talked about a year ago.

NCRA is the public entity created to operate freight service on tracks in the North Bay, including the same tracks that would be used by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit if voters approve the passenger rail system next year. A sales tax increase to pay for the passenger train narrowly failed in a vote in Marin and Sonoma last year.

As envisioned, SMART would operate on 70 miles of track from Cloverdale to Larkspur. It would share the tracks with the North Coast Railroad Authority, but the systems operate separately.

Freight traffic has caused consternation in Novato, which is worried about noise and traffic disruption. When the city found out that the North Coast Railroad Authority was talking about extending tracks all the way to Humboldt County through the Eel River canyon – 316 miles – and running far more freight trains than originally planned, it filed a lawsuit. The city has asked a judge to halt all NCRA improvements on the tracks until environmental impacts are further addressed. Marin County has filed a brief supporting Novato. A Marin judge, who declined to issue an injunction halting all work immediately, has delayed hearing the lawsuit until 2008. Numerous North Bay environmental groups also are supporting the lawsuit.

The rail authority is in the middle of a $2.4 million environmental impact report, which it says will address “quiet zones” and other freight concerns, and that it will be ready for public review in May. It doesn’t want its far northern plans to be part of that review and says those plans are not relevant.

Novato’s freight fears may be overstated, but the rail authority simply cannot have it both ways.

It has gone public with wildly optimistic – some would argue greatly exaggerated – projections of freight traffic based on presumed demand and the construction or rebuilding of hundreds of miles of tracks through rugged and sensitive areas. It appears these ambitious plans are designed in large part to attract investors and government funding.

But then the rail authority complains when opponents use its plans and traffic projections to demand more study of what such freight traffic would mean.

Everything comes with a price, which is what the rail authority is finding out.

There are great benefits to resuming freight train service in the North Bay after a hiatus of about a decade. Freight trains are a more efficient way to move goods and materials than big rigs on Highway 101. Novato is right to be concerned about noise, traffic and safety, but all of those issues can be resolved.

SMART, which is watching this battle from the sidelines, is committed to paying for quiet zones, including in Novato. That means no train whistles. If SMART is approved, once it is running it will control dispatching of all trains on its 70 miles of track. Novato’s legal fight is over freight, not passenger service.

The rail authority needs to be less arrogant and more responsive to local concerns. That also means being more realistic about its plans.

The North Coast Railroad Authority has provided its opponents with plenty of ammunition. That train already has left the station, but it’s not too late for the freight rail folks to get back on track. Straight talk is the ticket.

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