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SRD: Freight line, Novato talk settlement
Friday 5 Sep 2008, 06:51
Filed under: Uncategorized

City sued North Coast Railroad Authority over environmental report on reopening service

By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Friday, September 5, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 5, 2008 at 3:41 a.m.

The North Coast Railroad Authority and Novato are trying to settle an environmental dispute that has stalled the return of freight rail service to Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.

A trial in the case has been postponed until Sept. 30 while the two sides talk.

“Our goal would be to have a settlement ratified by that time,” said Mitch Stogner, director of the Ukiah-based rail authority. He wouldn’t comment on issues in the talks.

Novato City Attorney Jeffrey Walter confirmed the settlement negotiations Thursday but also declined to talk about the issues.

Novato sued NCRA in Marin County Superior Court last year, charging the rail authority hasn’t considered the environmental impacts of freight trains on the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad.

The historic route has been closed since 2001, when storm damage made it unsafe for train traffic.

Since then, the state has granted $50 million to repair a 62-mile right-of-way between Napa and Windsor. Freight service was supposed to resume in mid-2008, but the lawsuit has halted the final phase of repairs.

In January, Marin County Superior Court Judge James Ritchie said the rail authority may have violated the state’s environmental law by failing to study all the impacts of its freight service.

Novato is seeking a study of train impacts on the full 300-mile route from Napa to Eureka. Novato officials say the trains will cause traffic tie-ups, noise problems and air pollution.

NCRA is preparing an environmental report on just the southern half of the line, arguing there is no timetable for extending service to Eureka.

NCRA and its backers said freight rail should be restored because it will save fuel, cut the number of heavy trucks on Highway 101 and reduce costs for shippers. The authority has awarded a contract to a private company, NWP Co., to operate trains on the route.

If there’s a settlement this month, cargo service could be restored by April 1, Stogner said. There’s about $15 million worth of unfinished work on bridges, railbed and track, he said.

The operator would run three round trips a week for the first year, Stogner said, and could eventually increase the schedule to three round trips per day.

The freight line could reopen from Windsor north to Willits by the end of 2009, Stogner said.

Meanwhile, voters in Sonoma and Marin counties will be asked in November to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to fund a commuter rail service from Cloverdale to Larkspur. The proposed passenger trains, scheduled to begin running in 2014, would share the track with NCRA’s cargo trains.

NCRA was set up by state legislators in 1989 to keep trains running on the North Coast. The route opened in 1907 and was operated by Southern Pacific until the 1980s.

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or steve.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

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