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Report on Transportation Issues

Rick Luttmann  | Published on 10/11/2021

Transportaion



Report on Transportation Issues

 

Rick Luttmann

11 October 2021

 

 

Notes from the SCTA CAC (Citizens Advisory Committee to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority) meeting of Monday 27 September 2021. A quorum was barely present, but the “minutes” of the last CAC meeting, which failed to make quorum and was therefore conducted as a “Committee of the Whole”, were accepted as an information item.

 

Regarding Quorum requirements, the staff explained that the CAC is subject to the same rules as the SCTA Board. Vacancies do not reduce the total membership, and hence also do not reduce the standard for a quorum: a majority of the total membership. In other words, “vacancies” are the same as “absences”. Members questioned the wisdom of this rule, since there are several vacancies, and many of those appointed do not attend regularly. On the other hand, the following rule is helpful: if a quorum is present at any time during the meeting, everything after that is official, even if a quorum is subsequently lost. There is no such thing here as a “quorum call”, as there is in Congress and other deliberative bodies.

 

The remainder of the first hour of this meeting was a report by Sonoma County’s three transit agencies (Sonoma County Transit, Santa Rosa Transit, and Petaluma Transit) on how they are recovering from the pandemic. There was copious data, but the gist is that “riders are returning” as routes are restored and service frequency is increased. All three agencies acknowledged receiving Measure M funds, and that these were essential in maintaining minimal service during the downturn in demand during the pandemic.

 

Regrettably I was unable to attend the remainder of this meeting due to an overlapping commitment. Two more matters were agendized:

 

>>        2021 SCTA Funding Program

a. List of Projects Submitted for the 2021 SCTA Funding Program

b. Proposed projects to be programmed with CRRSAA and STIP funding

 

>>        Highway Updates

 

 

Editorial comment: This Committee virtually never votes on anything (except on pro forma procedural matters, such as “approval agenda”, “approve minutes”, “adjourn”). We are never asked to discuss anything coming before the SCTA. And SCTA meetings never reference this committee. What’s the Point?!!

 

 

 

Notes from the Friends of SMART meeting, Wednesday 6 October 2021:

 

There was discussion of the long-planned ped/bike overcrossing of 101 between SRJC and Coddingtown. One member proposes using the bridge as a “Placemaker”. It could, at relatively low cost, be a dramatic cable-stayed bridge like the Salvadore Calatrava “Sundial” Bridge in Redding. It is a short bike ride from the Schulz Museum, and it is near the North Santa Rosa SMART station. To generate interest in SMART by bringing its existence to motorists stuck in slow traffic, it could bear a sign advertising “Next northbound train at …” and “Next southbound train at …”.

 

The remainder of the meeting was devoted to discussing freight. It was noted that, by Federal policy, no railroad can be isolated from the rest of the US rail network, and that includes the “Skunk” train between Willits and Ft Bragg. So the STB (Surface Transportation Board) will most likely not permit abandonment of the rail line from Willits to Cloverdale, as Mike McGuire wants for his “Great Redwood Trail”. SB 69 “authorizes”, but does not require, abandonment of the track between Cloverdale and Willits.

 

The day prior to this Friends of SMART meeting, a subgroup met to consider the organization’s position on the coal-train proposal. There were some technical questions that were briefly considered, but dropped because of insufficient information about the proposal, which has not yet been publicly released. These questions included whether 136#/ft rail would be necessary to adequately support coal cars weighing 120 tons; whether the “gantlet tracks” at stations (which were mistakenly designed to be set “straight” for SMART trains but set to “divert” for freight trains) were tough enough to handle multiple 110-car heavily-loaded trains every day; and whether PTC (“positive train control”) would be required (yes, some said, unless trains move at no more than 30 mph).

 

It was noted that SB 307 prohibits public funds from being spent to resuscitate the Eel River Canyon line between Willits and Eureka, although private funds could be used. Some argued that it would be to the public’s advantage to have both passenger and freight service to Eureka, given the inadequacies in the current state of US 101. Also, AmTrak still lists the SF to Eureka corridor as one it wishes someday to develop, and apparently the military is also interested in having a rail line available over this route. It was observed that a refurbished rail line over the old route is probably beyond feasibility due to both technical and environmental concerns, but that a new route might be found that would avoid both concerns. The existing route, after all, was laid out in the 19th century and built largely by imported Chinese workers using hand tools. Modern engineering equipment could find ways to build the railroad line with considerably more freedom.

 

Regarding whether Friends of SMART should take a position at this time opposing the coal-trains proposal, some points of discussion included:

  • There are several West Coast ports that would appear to be more suitable for shipping coal to Asia from the Inter-Mountain West, such as Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Oakland. But all of these ports have been declared “unavailable” by their governing authorities. Otherwise, Humboldt Bay would seem to be a totally absurd choice. But there are other alternatives, such as Vancouver and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, and a Mexican port on the Sea of Cortez south of Yuma, Arizona.
  • Coal from the Powder River Basin is low in sulfur and so is regarded as “clean”, in that when it is burned it does not produce polluting and smog-causing oxides of sulfur. Right now China is burning its own coal as well as Australian coal, both of which are considerably “dirtier”. So as bad as coal is for the climate, there are degrees of “bad” and it might be considered an improvement for China to burn cleaner coal if it’s going to continue burning coal anyway.

 

All things considered, the group agreed that it is premature to take a position on coal trains at this time, since there are so many unanswerable questions until an actual proposal is publicly on the table. The group did, however, confirm its commitment to keeping rail in place through MP 142.5 in north Willits to retain the possibility of someday having both freight and passenger service between Cloverdale and Willits (and hence Larkspur and Willits). SMART already owns the rail to the Mendocino/Sonoma County line at MP 89, and could acquire ownership of the remaining (Mendocino County) rail up to MP 142.5.

 

 

Notes from the SMART Board meeting, Wednesday 6 October 2021:

 

The SMART staff has been in discussions with their counterparts in the Golden Gate Bridge District’s ferry section about improving the connection between the SMART station and the ferry boarding area. It is a walk of almost half-a-mile, and takes passengers between 9 and 31 minutes to walk it (depending on a passenger’s personal walking capability). It has been considered to use golf-cart transportation but the problem there is that the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires that if such an accommodation is provided to any passengers, something equivalent must be provided for the mobility-impaired – and staff doesn’t know how to transport wheelchairs on golf carts. In the meantime they have agreed that the best they can do is coordinate schedules so that there is 30 to 60 minutes between the arrival of a ferry/train and the departure of the corresponding train/ferry.

 

The Board authorized the purchase of special equipment for servicing the trucks (wheel assemblies) that support rail cars, which heretofore has been farmed out to a company in southern California. Having the ability “in house” to perform these services will save considerable time and money. As their equipment ages, they will have increasing need for these services.

 

The SMART Board meetings are held entirely via zoom at this point, and the Board is authorized to continue to do so through 2023. However, they must recertify the need to do so at 30-day intervals. Since the Board normally meets every two weeks, this will not be a problem except around holiday times when the scheduled gap between meetings is extended.

 

Staff made a presentation on their “short-term” budget plans, which is supposed to be defined as 10 years (i.e., through 2031), but was reduced at this time to 2029 due to the uncertainty of funding beyond that until the sales tax extension is approved by voters.

 

It costs between $10 million and $100 million per mile to upgrade their track north of the Airport. They are doing so in three stages: Airport to Windsor, Windsor to Healdsburg, and Healdsburg to Cloverdale. They expect to establish service to Windsor by 2023 or 2024 at the latest. As to the bike/ped paths required to parallel the tracks, and reconstruction of bridges (including the big one over the Russian River south of Healdsburg), some are funded and some are not yet funded.

 

It has been difficult to project costs and revenues into the future because, in addition to the fact that SMART has been operating only four years, recent times have not permitted any definition of “normal”, given natural disasters such as fires, flood, and pandemics. There have been 12 Federally-declared disasters in SMART’s service area since 2017. The number of trains operating per day has gone from 34 to 38 to 16 to 26. It has also operated some limited freight service on the rails it owns, including the line between Novato and the Napa River bridge.

 

The final agenda item was a vaccination requirement for all employees, including the Board members themselves (to “set an example”). The Board had to negotiate requirements with its unions, but an agreement has been reached. The vaccination mandate will kick in on 6 December. Exemptions are possible for limited reasons, but absent an exemption an employee who refuses to comply will eventually be terminated after a couple of interim warning stages. The Board intends to advertise their new policy widely to assure passengers who might be concerned about contracting Covid that they will not contract it from railroad personnel.

 

 

Notes from the SR-37 Policy Committee meeting on Thursday 7 October 2021.

 

The problem of both flooding and congestion on Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo is the subject of special attention. Staff presented some extensive reports based on demographic and engineering studies. Possibilities include rerouting the Hwy-101-to-Sears-Point section to one of two locations to the north, crossing the Petaluma River valley and connecting to the Lakeville Highway. However, there is significant opposition to environmental degradation in the Valley. Raising the highway on causeways or using embankments have been considered for minimizing flooding as sea levels continue to rise. There are existing plans to restructure the intersection of Hwy 121 with Hwy 37 at Sears Point to expediate flow. Also under consideration is expanding Hwy 37 to three lanes between Sears Point and Vallejo, with one lane in the middle being dedicated to westbound traffic in the morning and eastbound traffic in the afternoon, and in both cases restricted to high-occupancy vehicles (HOV). A movable barrier, such as now in use on the Golden Gate Bridge, would be required, but at considerable expense because the distance is 10 miles. Once such a plan is introduced it would be feasible to begin operating buses on this route. Note that all of these plans are relatively long-term, probably none to be completed before 2029 – a long time to wait for people already stuck in commute traffic twice a day. These are largely people who work in Marin but can’t afford to live there, so they live in more-affordable places like the Springs outside of Sonoma, and American Canyon and Vallejo in the lower Napa Valley.

 

Rail alternatives were hardly considered. This is odd, because SMART already controls the track between Novato and the Napa River bridge, and uses it for light freight. With little expense, largely for some modest stations at Napa River, Schellville, and possibly Sears Point, and some upgrading of a few bridges, SMART could institute passenger service rather quickly and rather cheaply. Of course, SMART doesn’t have the funds to institute such service, as it is already committed to completing its major promise of rail-and-trail between Larkspur and Cloverdale. But then again, it isn’t really SMART’s problem: it’s CalTrans’s and MTC’s problem, and as they are large and powerful organizations they should be able to raise the money it would take. They should also be able to persuade transit operators in the lower Sonoma and Napa Valleys to provide bus service at the Napa River and Schellville stations.

 

Another entity owns the rail line from the Napa River bridge to Suisun, and while it is intended to eventually develop the connection all the way from Novato to Suisun (for both freight and passenger service), the necessity of collaboration between two entities will slow the development of this connection.

 

 

Editorial comment: At this and all similar meetings (including the SMART Board), public comment is invited on issues under consideration. However, following a critical comment by another member of the public at the above-described meeting, one of the members of this Committee complained about the comment in a way which I, as a member of the public, found particularly offensive. She said in effect (my paraphrase) "There are a lot of high-priced experts talking to us, so you amateurs should shut up and listen." If that's really her view -- and I suspect it is not only hers but the whole hierarchy's -- why bother having public comment at all? It's sheer hypocrisy. And it explains why an observation I made in my public comment is valid, that no matter how much We the People talk about the benefits of rail, they just want to keep pouring concrete.

 

Many of us who offer comments at such meetings are just doing it as a public service. We have nothing personally to gain. In my case, I'm 81 years old and I don't expect to be around when civilization collapses in a heap because the damn government was too incompetent to implement preventive measures beginning a third of a century ago when scientists first issued warnings. As to highway 37 congestion -- I may drive on that road 2 or 3 times a year. I live three miles from my work and was a bicycle commuter for 30 years. So why am I there? I sometimes wonder! But it has to do with a feeling that it's my civic responsibility to contribute to solving our culture's problems. I think I deserve to have my comments taken seriously.

 

Since it is relevant to the matters considered in my reports, and since I am already editorializing anyway, I append a letter I recently sent to State Senator Mike McGuire:

 

Dear Mike:

 

I usually agree with you on political matters, but your quest to destroy the rail corridor between Cloverdale and Willits is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. 

 

The future is rail. Surely you know that. In a time of accelerating concern over climate chaos brought on by excessive anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, we must take every reasonable measure to reduce the production of GHG (greenhouse gases). That means, among other things, prioritizing rail transport (for both freight and passenger service) over ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles. We are, in short, returning to an era, as in 19th century America before the automobile, when railroads were the principal means of conveying goods and people. In the future we will NEED railroads, and we will regret every opportunity we missed to enhance and encourage rail service. Certainly the destruction of an existing railroad right-of-way would therefore be the height of foolishness and will surely earn stern and well-merited approbation from our descendants in a troubled future.

 

I want to clarify:

   I am all for pedestrian and bicycle trails. I am a cyclist myself and was indeed a bicycle commuter for 30 years between my home in Rohnert Park and the campus of Sonoma State University. So intrinsically the idea of your Great Redwood Trail is appealing -- EXCEPT for the part about taking out a rail line to create it. Tell me you can build the GRT BESIDE the track, as SMART is in the process of doing beside its tracks between Larkspur and Cloverdale, and I will applaud you. Tell me you want to remove the railroad and I will vigorously oppose you.

   Also, I am not opposed to de-commissioning the defunct rail line from MP 142.5 in Willits to Eureka, through the Eel River Canyon. Although US 101 from Willits to Eureka is definitively inadequate for both passenger vehicles and freight-hauling trucks, a cost/benefit analysis of the resurrection of that portion of track would surely fail to meet the test of reasonableness.

 

I want to see the entire railway line from Larkspur to Willits MP 142.5 remain intact. I would like to see the northern part of that line (from MP 89, the Mendocino/Sonoma County line, to Willits MP 142.5) transferred to SMART, with the hope and expectation that as funds permit in the future both passenger and freight service will be re-instituted on this line. In particular, getting trucks off US 101 between Cloverdale and Willits will not only make the highway safer, but will significantly reduce the amount of GHG produced in hauling freight over this route.

 

 

Notes from the SCTA+RCPA (Sonoma County Transportation Authority + Regional Climate Protection Agency) meeting on Monday 11 October 2021

 

 

4.1  Regional Energy Network (REN)

            Bay REN is under ABAG

            Partnered with SCP (Sonoma Clean Power)

            Considerations of equity

            There is an Energy Atlas

            BAMBE (Bay Area Multifamily Building Enhancements)

            Green labeling

            Drought: Water Upgrades $ave (County, Sebastopol, and Cloverdale)

 

4.2  Funding for the Climate committee

 

 

4,3  Planning

            Pending Developments and Permitted Projects

            There is a database

            PDA = Priority Development Areas

            Non-housing priorities

            Rohnert Park very serious: Low-income housing grant; Sonoma Mountain Village; University District

 

4.4  Funding

            We’re in a five-year planning window -- $70 M known available now, $230 M requested

            Competition is taking place now. Decisions expected Jan/Feb 2022.

            Spillover will be considered for other funding sources.

            Each jurisdiction is permitted up to 5 proposals. Transit agencies may also apply.

            City of Sonoma missed out because of deep staff shortages. At Sonoma Mayor’s request, the Board permitted Sonoma to submit projects post-deadline.

 

4.5  Funding STIP

            State Transportation Improvement Programs, awards in 2022

            Unfunded projects will remain on the list for future funding opportunities.

            The Board approved a short list of the projects considered most urgent.

 

4.6  CalTrans Sustainable Transportation Planning

            These grants are for pedestrian/bicycle improvements.

            Three-year timeline

            Criteria include level of traffic, safe schools

 

4.7  Future of Transit

            Brief discussion because meeting about to adjourn

 

4.8  Freight

            The Board approved a resolution [see below for Resolution and staff comment] opposing the coal-train proposal and endorsing Mike McGuire’s Great Redwood Trail proposal, even though this proposal as it stands calls for decommissioning and ripping out the existing railroad between Cloverdale and Willits. This is unwise because “the future is rail”. In the 21st century, the transport of freight and passengers is going to look much more like the 19th century than the 20th. For 100 years we’ve enjoyed the benefits of passenger cars and long-haul trucks, but it is a Faustian bargain and the penalty is coming due in the form of global warming.

 

It may take the rest of the coming decade until SMART completes its existing commitment for rail and trail to Cloverdale, but it owns the trackage to the Mendocino/Sonoma County line (MP 89). The SUB (Surface Transportation Board) is right now in the process of deciding which entity will control the track from there to Willits (MP 142.5). Sooner or later we will need this track, and it is very difficult to recreate a railroad right-of-way once it has been extinguished. It would be wiser to keep it “in reserve”.

 

The remainder of the agenda was postponed due to time constraints.

Staff Report

 

To: SCTA/RCPA Board of Directors                                                 Meeting Date: 10/11/2

 

From: Suzanne Smith, Executive Director                                         Item Number: 4.8

 

Subject: Joint Resolution No. 2021-002 in opposition to hauling coal on the Northwest Pacific Railroad and supporting the Great Redwood Trail

 

Consent Item: Regular Item: Action Item: Report:

 

Issue: Shall the SCTA/RCPA oppose the transport of coal from the Midwest on the Northwest Pacific Railroad through Sonoma County? Shall the SCTA/RCPA support the Great Redwood Trail and the railbanking proposal required to carry it out?

 

Recommendation: Staff recommends that the Board adopt Joint Resolution No. 2021-002 to oppose the transport of coal by freight rail through Sonoma County, support the railbanking required to implement the Great Redwood Trail and inform the Surface Transportation Board and other relevant stakeholders of the SCTA/RCPA position.

 

Executive Summary: A newly formed corporation, North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, based in Wyoming, recently filed an objection, with the Surface Transportation Board, to the request from NRCA to be exempted from the process by which third parties can purchase its railroad right of way against NCRA’s objections. This process, if successful, would end NCRA’s attempt to railbank the right of way. It is believed that their ambition is to transport millions of tons of coal from Montana, Utah and Wyoming through Northern California; including through Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt. The Great Redwood Trail will be an asset for active transportation and tourism. Coal use is contrary to GHG goals related to clean energy plus the transport of coal can be hazardous to waterways and communities along the track.

 

Policy Impacts / Nexus to Agency Goals: Opposing the transport of coal and supporting a regional trail project align with climate goals related to green energy and active transportation.

 

Background:

 

The North Coast Railroad Authority (NRCA), a California entity that oversees a certain rail line in Northern California, sought the federal Surface Transportation Board’s permission to abandon a failed, unused rail segment between Willits and several points in Humboldt County. The line was closed by federal safety officials after destructive rainstorms in 1998 washed out hillsides and collapsed tunnels.

 

NCRA also requested to “railbank” the dilapidated train tracks for the proposed Great Redwood Trail. The intent of NCRA’s railbank request is to convert the right of way for completion of the 320-mile Great Redwood Trail connecting San Francisco and Humboldt Bay for use by hikers, cyclists, and equestrians, while preserving the rail line for possible future use.

Railbanking means converting unused tracks for other interim purposes, although the tracks can potentially be restored for rail traffic later. NCRA estimates that costs to restore the tracks for freight traffic would exceed $2 billion and will still remain unreliable due to the regular slides and washouts, especially along the environmentally sensitive Eel River Canyon.

 

A newly formed corporation, North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, based in Wyoming, recently filed an objection with the Surface Transportation Board to the railbanking request from NRCA and the Great Redwood Trail proposal. The filing says the corporation wants to restore the railway for “future, high volume traffic flows”. The filing did not specifically mention coal transport but many, including State Senator Mike McGuire and Congressman Jared Huffman, suspect that the North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, has ambition to transport millions of tons of coal from Montana, Utah and Wyoming through Northern California including the counties of Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt. The final domestic destination is believed to be the Port of Humboldt Bay before the transported coal is exported to foreign destinations.

 

The fate of the rail line will be determined by the Surface Transportation Board that will look at the financial viability of the applicant and could potentially make a narrow determination based on whether the corporation is adequately capitalized to reopen the rail line for freight traffic. North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, also asserted that federal policy requires the Surface Transportation Board to prioritize maintenance or restoration of a rail line wherever possible. It is conceivable that the Surface Transportation Board may grant the petition filed by the North Coast Railroad Company, LLC.

 

A broad-based coalition of stakeholders, including Senator McGuire and Congressman Huffman, counties along the impacted rail line, and others have expressed opposition to the petition by the North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, for a myriad of health and safety issues related to coal and the transport of coal, and strong support for the Great Redwood Trail proposal.

 

Joint Resolution No. 2021-002 expresses opposition to the petition filed by the North Coast Railroad Company, LLC and support for railbanking the line for the Great Redwood Trail. This aligns with the SCTA and RCPA goals related to climate change.

 

RESOLUTION OF THE SONOMA COUNTY TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY AND SONOMA COUNTY REGIONAL CLIMATE PROTECTION AUTHORITY (SCTA/RCPA) OPPOSING ANY TRANSPORT OF COAL THROUGH SONOMA COUNTY, SUPPORTING RAILBANKING FOR THE GREAT REDWOOD TRAIL AND INFORMING THE SURFACE TRANSPORATION BOARD OF THE SCTA/RCPA POSITION.

 

WHEREAS, Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority is leading the collaborative efforts of local governments to reduce emissions and support all electric energy use that is green and sustainable; and

WHEREAS, California is a global leader in the transition from fossil fuel dependence to a clean energy economy; and

WHEREAS, California has approved legislation opposing the transshipment of coal to any nation that fails to adopt rules and regulations on the emissions of greenhouse gases that are less restrictive than the United States; and

WHEREAS, a new corporation, North Coast Railroad Company, LLC, based in Wyoming, has submitted paperwork to the federal Surface Transportation Board objecting to railbanking for the Great Redwood Trail and stating their intent to purchase the railroad; and

WHEREAS, it has been reported that North Coast Railroad Company, LLC intends to use the railroad to transport coal mined in the Midwest, across California to Marin County, and then haul it north through Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties to the Port of Humboldt; and

WHEREAS, coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change and is responsible for nearly 50% of the carbon dioxide emissions worldwide; and

WHEREAS, coal exports from United States ports to Asia have risen by almost 240 percent from 3.8 million tons in 2009 to over 13 million tons in 2010; and

WHEREAS, the environmental consequences of massive coal exports to Asia are severe, including the burning of millions of tons of coal that releases hazardous air emissions into the atmosphere and increased mountaintop removal projects; and

WHEREAS, loose coal can cause devastating impacts to our drinking water, watersheds and surrounding environment; and

WHEREAS, coal burning has contributed to significant human health risks in all age groups through the emissions of ozone, sulfur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter, nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury, and carbon dioxide (CO2); and

WHEREAS, global climate change has contributed to escalating catastrophes in California, with an astonishing eight of the 20 most destructive fires in California history occurring in just the past five years, including the massive 2017 wildfires which resulted in the burning of 1.2 million acres of land, the destruction of 10,800 structures, insured losses of more than $11 billion, and at least 46 deaths; and

WHEREAS, continuing to support, even indirectly, companies that facilitate the production and use of fossil fuels, shown conclusively to negatively impact our environment, is morally indefensible; and

WHEREAS, the Russian and Eel Rivers supply drinking water to nearly one million people of Northern California, and habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species;

 

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that for the above stated reasons and more, shipping coal through California’s North Coast presents a serious danger to all of our communities; and be it further

RESOLVED, that Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority hereby notifies the Surface Transportation Board of our strong opposition to this application and declare that it should be rejected outright; and be it further

RESOLVED that we encourage the Surface Transportation Board to grant the request of the North Coast Railroad Authority to railbank their rail line from Willits to Humboldt Bay.