A court fight over an old railroad bridge could curtail commercial traffic on the Petaluma River, where barge companies move thousands of tons of cargo every month.
The bridge owner, the North Coast Railroad Authority, is suing Petaluma's biggest barge operator, charging its barges have damaged the Black Point train bridge at the mouth of the Petaluma River.
The rail authority is seeking a court order restricting barge traffic on the river until the bridge is repaired.
The barge operator, Jerico Products Inc., is fighting back in federal court, alleging the 93-year-old wood-and-steel swing span is a navigational hazard that should be removed.
Jerico Products owner Chris Lind said the rail authority's lawsuit could put him out of business and increase the number of heavy trucks on nearby Highway 101. Jerico's barges haul gravel for construction projects and oyster shells that are crushed for use in animal feed and other products.
The Black Point bridge hasn't been used since 2001, when the rail authority halted freight service on the southern portion of the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad.
But it could reopen if the public rail authority gets funds to rehabilitate the line. The authority's attorney, Chris Neary, said the $30 million bridge is a vital link to the national rail system.
Black Point isn't on the stretch of railroad between Larkspur and Cloverdale considered for commuter service by a separate rail agency, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit.
The train bridge is between Highway 37 and San Pablo Bay, southeast of Petaluma.
Last week, the Coast Guard fined the rail authority $2.2 million for violating an order to repair it. "The waterway is presently unsafe because of the bridge," said David Solouff, chief of the Coast Guard's Bridge Section in Alameda.
However, a Coast Guard hearing officer agreed to waive most of the fine if the owners fix the span. On Thursday, the rail authority approved a $1million contract for Dutra Construction Co. of San Rafael to repair the bridge.
In the lawsuit filed in December in Sonoma County Superior Court, the rail authority says Jerico is responsible for the damage and should pay to fix it. According to the lawsuit, Jerico's barges have struck the bridge several times, leaving it vulnerable to collapse.
Neary said other barge operators may have damaged the bridge and the rail authority is seeking Coast Guard records to document the incidents. They could be added to the suit, he said.
Jerico and two other Petaluma-based barge operators use the river, mostly carrying construction materials. Solouff said Petaluma River barge traffic has increased four-fold in recent years as a result of construction on the Bay Bridge and Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
Currently, there about 40 barge trips on the river every month.
Lind said Jerico barges struck the bridge in the past, but most of the damage was caused by the rail authority's lack of maintenance. A video taken by barge owners shows the bridge has numerous rotten pilings and missing timbers.
Earlier this year, Jerico filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco seeking to force the bridge owners to remove it. The lawsuit alleges the bridge violates federal maritime law because it hinders navigation.
According to the lawsuit, the bridge blocks the river at low tide and limits the size of barges that can use the channel.