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NA: Will judge halt freight trains?
Wednesday 9 Jan 2008, 11:29
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad

By Tim Omarzu
Managing Editor
Wednesday, January 9, 2008 12:51 PM PSTWill a judge temporarily halt repair work on railroad tracks that would bring freight trains back through Novato?

Stay posted.

On Monday, Marin County Superior Court Judge James Ritchie issued a four-page preliminary ruling suggesting that he was going to side with the city of Novato in its lawsuit against the North Coast Railroad Authority.

But after hearing almost three hours of attorneys’ arguments Tuesday morning, the judge said he was going to “take another look at it” and issue a new ruling.

The railroad authority is spending $35 million to repair tracks between Lombard in Napa County and Windsor in Sonoma County, and railroad officials say that by July, they hope to have three freight trains per week running.

But the city of Novato filed suit on Sept. 28 charging, among other things, that the railroad authority needed to analyze the environmental impacts of restoring rail service for its more than 300 miles of track all the way to Humboldt Bay — not just the section of track between the city of Willits in Mendocino County and Lombard.

“The court has concluded that the … environmental analysis should be conducted and considered before more work is done,” Ritchie wrote in his four-page preliminary ruling. “The whole project — whether broken up geographically, by phases of construction and operation or otherwise — must be considered in (environmental) analysis.”

But on Tuesday, Judge Ritchie heard arguments against the city’s lawsuit from lawyers representing the railroad authority, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, Caltrans, and Mass. Electric Construction Co., which is installing new crossing signals.

One of the arguments made by the railroad authority’s attorney Christopher J. Neary was that the city exceeded the statute of limitations and filed its Sept. 8 lawsuit too late against a decision that the railroad authority board made on June 7.

“(The city) filed late and they chose to do so. It was a tactical decision,” Neary said. “They waited until after we had entered into the first contract (to fix the tracks) that they’re complaining about.”

The city’s attorney, Jeffrey Walter, argued that the railroad authority was running afoul of the California Environmental Quality Act. For example, Walter said that the railroad authority claimed that its track repairs near Schellville in southern Sonoma County were simply repairs, when Walter said the work would increase the track’s capacity.

“CEQUA … doesn’t apply if there’s an expansion of use or capacity,” he said, comparing the work that the railroad authority is doing to converting “a two-lane country road into a 10-lane freeway.”

Judge Ritchie said he would make a ruling as soon as possible. He could choose to issue a temporary injunction that would stop some work on the tracks until Feb. 26, when Ritchie will hear the entire case.

If the judge issues a temporary injunction, the railroad authority could continue to do some work, such as installation of signage and dewatering a flooded area in Schellville, said Dave Anderson, project manager for the railroad authority.

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