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Barge company, rail authority in fight that could hinder river traffic

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.


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