Sonoma-Marin commuter rail gets railroad approval

Rail authority OKs project after change to bill's wording

July 17, 2002

By SPENCER SOPER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Following weeks of negotiations with passenger train backers, a North Coast railroad owner concerned about maintaining access for freight trains has withdrawn its opposition to a state bill that would create a Sonoma-Marin commuter rail district.

The North Coast Rail Authority had argued passenger trains would threaten the viability of freight trains that use the same tracks. But the bill was amended last month to say passenger rail will "operate in harmony" with freight trains, which was enough to allay the rail authority's concerns.

"We wanted to make sure that we're all working together on this," said Max Bridges, executive director of the North Coast Rail Authority, which owns the line from Healdsburg past Eureka.

The rail authority is a significant stake-holder in the fate of the rail line through Sonoma and Marin counties, so its new position removes a hurdle for commuter rail backers.

A 68-mile commuter rail line between Cloverdale and San Rafael is a key piece of a long-range plan to relieve congestion on Highway 101. The trains would run on an existing rail line parallel to the highway.

Introduced in February by Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District Act would create a new agency that could own the rail line, operate commuter trains and put a tax measure for rail to Sonoma and Marin county voters.

Local officials hope to put on the ballot in 2004 a sales tax to pay for commuter rail and begin the service three years later. Several past measures to pay for rail have failed in both counties.

Nation said the North Coast rail authority's new position will help his bill become law. The Assembly approved the legislation in June. It goes to the Senate for a vote in August and then to the governor.

"This will take away the pressure for a governor veto," Nation said about North Coast authority's new position.

The conflict between freight and commuter rail backers put state Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, and Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Duncans Mills, in a pinch. Their districts include Sonoma County, which wants commuter trains, and Humboldt County, which wants freight service.

Strom-Martin, a member of the Assembly Transportation Committee, voted in favor of the commuter rail bill in April despite the objections from the North Coast Rail Authority.

Chesbro's staff, meanwhile, met with the commuter train proponents and North Coast rail officials to help hash out their differences, North Coast board member Leo Sears said.

Chesbro now supports the bill, his legislative aide Darby Kernan said.

Freight and commuter trains can use the same rail line, but it can create scheduling problems and safety issues. The benefits are that the two services can share the costs of upgrading and maintaining the tracks.

Though endorsed by the boards of supervisors in both Sonoma and Marin counties, the bill still faces opposition from some Marin activists who say their political will would be drowned out by more-populous Sonoma County.

The two-county rail district would be able to put one tax measure to voters in both counties. Past ballot measures were handled individually by each county.

You can reach Staff Writer Spencer Soper at 521-5257 or ssoper@pressdemocrat.com.