Here’s a question: If the regional transportation goal is to eliminate gridlock on Highway 101, why doesn’t a plan for expanded freight service enjoy the same support as the long-delayed Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) commuter train?
Doug Bosco, an investor and lawyer for Northwestern Pacific Railroad, sounded nonplussed over the phone the night before a significant hearing before the California State Supreme Court in late April. If anything, Bosco, the former North Coast congressman, sounded mildly annoyed.
“We’ve won in every court we’ve been in,” he said, referring to ongoing efforts to bring freight service to the North Coast.
This latest legal scrum wasn’t itself the source of Bosco’s annoyance, but the $1 million in legal fees and the ongoing obstacles to reviving freight train service in Northern California.
“As a practical matter, this is a difficult undertaking,” says the state’s North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) executive director Mitch Stogner on the notion of reviving a successful freight industry in northwestern California.
The authority was born in 1989 via the North Coast Railroad Authority Act, Stogner says, to provide for continued rail service in the region. Along the way, the state purchased lines or arranged deals with rail owners to eventually create a connection from Schellville (outside of the city of Sonoma) to Willits.
At one time, there was bipartisan support to finance the act, but the project was dealt its first blow when Gov. George Deukmejian nixed a funding bill; the project was eventually awarded $500 million to restore the train lines in 2007 under
Freight service was set to begin in 2009 until a lawsuit filed by Novato stopped the train in its tracks. “We’ve had our share of disappointments, but we’ve not given up,” Stogner says. “It’s just a struggling little freight entity.”
The agency inked a five-year deal in 2006, and a 99-year lease with the railroad was signed in 2011; the freight service dates back to 1907, but has historically been subjected to a litany of financial setbacks, multiple operators and serial stoppages in service.
Under the lease, Northwestern Pacific would be forced into a partnership with SMART, as the two would have to share the tracks.
The respective railroads have relied on the same marketing materials to sustain public support: they claim to be a safer and more environmentally sound means of transport than cars and trucks.
“Trains are much more effective than trucks,” Bosco says, as he cites the federal regulations ensuring safe rail transit, adding that trains emit “far less pollution” than trucks.
The similar marketing posture is about the only thing the two rail companies have in common.
SMART is funded by a voter-approved quarter-cent tax, and has had unwavering support despite budget overages and delays in service. A who’s who of Sonoma and Marin county officials comprise SMART’s governing board.
The freight game isn’t so cushy. “It all depends on getting customers,” Bosco says, explaining that Northwestern Pacific can only gradually expand northward as the SMART tracks are finalized, and paying customers materialize.
“Now that SMART is built, we can pick up customers,” Bosco says. “It’s a slow process.”
It will likely take up to five years to extend the freight route—currently functional from Schelville to Novato and up to Windsor—as far north as Cloverdale. For freight customers, rail is a viable alternative to trucks. Bosco says one dairy-feed client from Petaluma has already saved $1 million in transportation expenses.
There’s a joint-operating agreement between the commuter and freight lines, mostly agreeable but with maybe a tinge of sibling rivalry. “The challenge has been to share the line,” Stogner says. The two services have to coordinate maintenance and repair responsibilities, and determine a schedule to allow them both to flourish.
“Freight runs predominantly in the evenings, and does not currently conflict with SMART’s operating schedule,” says SMART spokesperson and marketing director Jeanne Mariani-Belding.
The plan is that SMART will rule the rails during the commuter hours; the freight service gets some track time in the middle of day, but primarily runs in the wee hours—currently Sunday through Thursday from 3am to 6am.
The two rail companies did have one public spat. Late last year, Northwestern Pacific allowed some cars to be parked on the tracks near its Schellville headquarters.
Locals sounded an alarm—what’s in those mysterious cars that never go anywhere?
Tanker cars filled with liquefied petroleum gas were being stored in the area, a lucrative practice that the rail relies upon to goose its revenue. The issue: the tracks in that area are owned by SMART, leading to a dispute that was finally resolved in February.
Stogner says safety was never much of a concern—the area is surrounded by remote dairy land, and the cars are heavily reinforced. “There’s not much that people can do to them,” he says, short of someone using “an Uzi or something akin to that.”
It’s also a common practice to store product on the track. “There’s never been a problem,” he says, adding that, after a legal standoff, “it was handled amicably.”
The squabble did engender a further question: while it was legislated that SMART would own those tracks near Schellville, shouldn’t they be the freight train’s responsibility, since they’re the ones using the track?
“It is a little bit nonsensical,” Stogner says. “They have no plans to ever use [the tracks]”—and that the freight rail is the only one that uses that branch.
“[SMART has] no immediate plans for any changes there,” says Mariani-Belding.
And then there’s the final obstacle, so far, for Northwestern Pacific: the aforementioned appearance in California Supreme Court.
This conflict has nothing to do with SMART, but with the Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, which filed the suit and wants to apply state safety standards that are in place for a high-speed commuter rail in central California to the freight trains—when Northwestern Pacific is under federal authority.
Bosco says it’s “very unusual not to uphold” federal authority and pledged to go to the Supreme Court if necessary. “It really is a federal issue.”
But Northwestern Pacific has already lost. Regardless of the outcome, they’re out more than $1 million in legal fees, with no SMART-style quarter-cent tax to rely on to offset the mounting legal costs.