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Freight Not?

SMART poised to roll down the track while planned freight service stumbles along

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TANKER SORE  Will the freight train ever come ’round the bend?
  • TANKER SORE Will the freight train ever come ’round the bend?

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 Gov. Schwarzenegger.

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."

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