SMART leaves businesses out of loop
Lagunitas Brewing Company of Petaluma receives three train cars per week full of malted barley from Canada to make its popular IPA, Little Sumpin' Sumpin' and Imperial Stout beers.
The grain travels more than 1,000 miles over rails to reach Petaluma but then stops less than a mile short of the Lagunitas brewery, where it is loaded onto trucks and is driven the rest of the way south on McDowell Boulevard.
This final bit of logistical gymnastics is necessary despite Lagunitas Brewing's location along the train tracks.
The property historically had a rail spur — a kind of driveway off the main tracks into the plant to facilitate freight cars. But that connection was not restored when contractors rebuilt the rail line to prepare for commuter train service in 2016.
As a result, Lagunitas Brewing is forced to use a spur that Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit built just to the north at Adobe Lumber.
"Ideally, we would activate our spur and bring the grain directly here," said Leon Sharyon, chief financial officer at the Petaluma brewery. "It's silly that our shipments come all that way but not all the way here."
The Lagunitas Brewing line is one of a handful of rail spurs that have been shut off as SMART builds the tracks for commuter service. Businesses along the line are upset at losing direct access to freight service, which can increase property values and save shipping costs.
SMART says some spurs need to disappear to meet federal safety guidelines. The rail authority is upgrading some spurs that serve legitimate businesses but can't afford to restore all the switches.
The issue highlights the challenges of operating a passenger rail system on a corridor shared with freight service and the competing interests and constituents of each.
"We're duking it out with SMART over the spurs," said Jake Park, general manager of freight operator Northwestern Pacific. "They have the big stick. It's their way or the highway."
SMART, which owns the right-of-way, is building the $427 million commuter rail system from San Rafael to Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa. It has an agreement with the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that oversees freight service on the line, to restore spurs to businesses that need them, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager.
After laying dormant for a decade, freight rail restarted in 2011 from Windsor to Schellville, where trains connect with other lines heading east. At the time, property owners along the line expressed interest in connecting to the freight network.
"The agreement was that if it was a bona fide business, they get a connection," Mansourian said. "We are in full support of getting businesses connected to our freight provider. We see each other as partners."
Businesses that want a rail spur and were not included in the original agreement can ask SMART to install one at the company's cost, Mansourian said. The lines, including expensive switching equipment, cost about $300,000, he said.
"We are spending taxpayers' money," he said. "We are accountable to the taxpayers."
Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax in 2008 to build a 70-mile rail line from Larkspur to Cloverdale. But in the face of slumping sales tax revenues, the rail agency has been forced to build the line in segments.