North Coast trail bill re-imagines SMART rail operations extending into Mendocino County
Two long-term and ambitious projects tied to North Coast rail operations picked up steam last week under a bill that’s now headed to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval.
The legislation, authored by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, calls for creation of a 300-mile trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
It also would consolidate control of the railroad tracks south of Willits under Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the commuter?-rail system that began serving Sonoma and Marin counties more than a year ago. That step could fuel efforts to expand commercial freight operations and extend passenger rail service north from Sonoma County into Mendocino County, supporters say.
“Having one entity with the authority over passenger and freight rail is the right thing to do,” said McGuire, whose legislation, Senate Bill 1029, cleared the Assembly on Thursday before the Senate gave it final passage Friday on a vote of 36-1. “It just makes sense. Ultimately this could be a revenue generator for SMART.”
SMART officials stressed that their focus remains completing the planned 70-mile system from Larkspur to Cloverdale. The current line runs 43 miles from near the Sonoma County Airport to San Rafael.
But an expansion north into Mendocino County isn’t out of the question, signaled Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART.
“The Cloverdale (Station), why does it have to stop there?” Mansourian said in an interview before the bill’s passage. “Our vision is to fulfill that and then go beyond. We don’t want to stagnate because if you just stand still then you go backwards.”
The abandoned tracks north of Willits would be transferred under McGuire’s bill to the state for study of the proposed Great Redwood Trail, which in the North Bay would use pathways along the SMART corridor, only about 16 miles of which exist so far. McGuire’s bill does not provide any funding for the trail project.
To unify authority over freight and passenger rail service with SMART, the bill would disband a small, beleaguered public agency that oversees North Coast freight operations. The Ukiah-based North Coast Railroad Authority, established in 1989 without a dedicated state revenue source, has been losing about $250,000 annually and been faulted in the past year by both its own auditor and the state Transportation Commission.
About half of its current $8.6 million debt is owed to the line’s private freight operator, Northwestern Pacific Railroad, according to Mitch Stogner, executive director of the rail authority.
McGuire’s bill would establish a way for the state to review the agency’s assets, liabilities and obligations, including its 99-year operations lease with NWP Co., the freight hauler. It also would provide $4 million to SMART to buyout the NWP Co lease.
Doug Bosco, co-owner of Northwestern Pacific, said the concept of SMART taking over freight operations has been floated in the past, but it’s not a deal he and Northwestern Pacific have sought out. Eighty-eight years remain on the railroad’s lease, and the company’s business is profitable, Bosco said. They had no prior plans to leave the industry.
“Like anything else, I’d consider it,” said Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney and former North Coast congressman who is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. “But it really isn’t our bill, and we’re not actively marketing the railroad at all. We’re satisfied right where we are and doing well, and our trains are running and we want to expand.”
The current contract allows the company to use the rail line as the sole freight hauler at no cost until it earns more than $5 million a year. That has yet to happen since freight hauling resumed from Napa to Windsor in 2011.
“Quite candidly, it’s a terrible contract for the taxpayers, but what I’ll say is SMART and NWP Co. will work on a potential buyout on the remaining years,” McGuire said, provided the governor signs bill. “It’s still too early to tell what will be the fruit of the negotiations.”
An amended agreement between SMART and Northwestern Pacific would be another option. Either path could open up state and federal grant money for freight line improvements, support that has not been available to NCRA because of its insolvency.
“Freight is very, very important for the communities of Marin and Sonoma and beyond,” Mansourian said in the interview last month. “Freight moves goods and gets huge trucks off highways and local roads. And if we are given that responsibility by state legislators, then we will go study that and perhaps do a public-private partnership, but my board has to review and approve that. So it’s on our list of things to do.”
A potential northward expansion of passenger service into Mendocino County - to Ukiah, the largest city and county seat, or even further north to Willits - would have to come far down the line, perhaps a decade or more into the future. Rail upgrades for passenger service are far costlier than for freight operations, and the state’s recent rail plan doesn’t expect passenger service to Cloverdale to begin until 2027. Plus, Mendocino County’s population may never justify the expense to extend passenger service so far north, supporters and critics acknowledge.
“I’d like to see it come to at least Ukiah,” said Jim Eddie, a Mendocino County resident who represents the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District on SMART’s board of directors. “Maybe they won’t do that in my time, but there will come a day where we’ll need that extra passenger service to be able to handle moving people. I know a lot of people sure would like to have the service come north, even if raising money in Mendocino County can be tough. But it’s a nice idea.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.