Mike Arnold: Freight train impact is growing
Article Launched: 07/17/2007 11:05:51 PM PDT
THE IMPACT of freight trains on Novato and Sonoma County residents is dependent on the number of trains the North Coast Railroad Authority will operate, the length of the trains and when they will operate.
Until recently, many residents in both counties had mistakenly believed that there would be only a few short freight trains per week operating during the day. The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit board reinforced this misconception when it adopted an environmental impact report that claimed there would be only a few trains per week, none greater than 12 cars long.
The NCRA's purpose is to restart freight service between Eureka and Lombard (Napa County), and the state is supporting that plan with millions of dollars in subsidies, providing the NCRA with more than $50 million since November. Additional funding for the NCRA is provided in legislation (SB861) recently introduced by state Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa. The bill passed the Senate and is heading for approval in the Assembly. Sen. Carole Migden voted for it. Assemblyman Jared Huffman has indicated he will support the bill only if it is amended and limits funding to the rail line south of Willits.
The NCRA recently granted a freight operator license to the Northwest Pacific Railroad Company. NWP's board includes Skip Berg, who received $20 million in earmarked funding in last year's federal transportation bill to develop Port Sonoma and Doug Bosco, former congressman from Northern California
and a longtime supporter of freight. Also on the board are principals of Evergreen Natural Resources, the company that owns the mining rights to Island Mountain quarry, adjacent to the Wild and Scenic Eel River in Trinity County. Evergreen Natural Resources has applied for a permit to mine Island Mountain and the NCRA owns 15 percent of the quarry.
According to Friends of the Eel River, the proposed quarry would level an entire mountain. The quarry is not accessible by truck and, according to the NWP business plan, would generate as much as 6 million tons of ore each year. Friends of the Eel River has estimated it would take 10 25-car trains a day to haul that much ore through Novato to points east.
The NCRA is required to complete an EIR prior to restarting freight service. It announced last week that it intends to prepare a "focused" EIR that excludes any trains associated with the quarry operation. Such an approach is clearly illegal and ignores contradictory statements and documents provided by the NCRA to multiple public agencies.
For instance, the NCRA's strategic plan submitted to the California Transportation Commission indicates freight service limited to trains from Sonoma County is not economically viable in the long run. And the NWP's business plan submitted to the California Transportation Commission states, "Because of the importance and magnitude of the potential revenue stream projected from the movement of large volumes of aggregate from Island Mountain, NWP would like to reopen the portion of the Eel River Division from Willits to Island Mountain as soon as possible."
The NCRA's current count of trains also is not consistent with a May 31 memo from NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner to the NCRA board. That memo describes more trains than the 32 trains per week they plan to evaluate in their EIR and describes two northbound and two southbound "65-car rock trains from Island Mountain quarry." (Frequency was not stated.)
The NCRA's plans to restart freight have negatively impacted SMART's political agenda and SMART supporters are rightly frustrated by SMART's lack of foresight. A successful freight rail operation will have significant impacts on residents and on SMART's operations, neither of which was addressed in SMART's EIR. Consequently, SMART is required to prepare a "supplemental EIR."
Just as the NCRA's EIR must evaluate the many trains the NCRA plans to operate, so too must SMART's new analysis.
Even if the NCRA attempts to ignore trains hauling ore from the Island Mountain quarry, SMART can't, because it is constrained by voters. As the IJ editorial correctly states, "If (voters) sense they aren't hearing the full story, it won't matter when SMART is on the ballot."
Mike Arnold of Novato is co-chairman of Marin Citizens for Effective Transportation.