SB 69 Seeks to Rip Out NWP Rails

By David Schonbrunn

David Schonbrunn is President of the Train Riders Association of California. Contact him at President@calrailnews.org

In the greatest threat to the NWP since the SP abandonment proceedings, Senator Mike McGuire, representing the North Coast has introduced the Great Redwood Trail bill, SB 69. He seeks to create the nation’s longest trail, running from Larkspur Landing in the south to Samoa in the North. The trail would run alongside SMART’s tracks, eventually all the way to Cloverdale. North of there, however, the rails would be “railbanked”–a polite term for rail removal, with the vague promise that they could be brought back at a future date because the right-of-way would be protected.

While the Train Riders Association of California is not opposed to a trail, we do note that the $1 – $5 billion cost would benefit relatively few people. With the State in fiscal crisis because of the pandemic, this trail is hardly a fiscal priority. See our letter: https://bit.ly/3dSh9ct Here’s what we find troubling about the proposal:

Railbanking is Problematic

•   Railbanking is legally suspect: Adjacent property owners can sue to eliminate the rail easement over their land once trains can no longer run. Trails are not guaranteed to preserve rail easements.

•   We are unaware of any railbanked rail lines that have been restored to rail service. Trail advocates don’t like to talk about this, but railbanking appears to be a one-way street.

Railbanking Blocks New Service to Mendocino

•   The North Coast Rails with Trails Coalition has identified at least 21 shippers in Mendocino County that want their businesses connected by rail to the national rail network. SB 69 calls for railbanking all the rails in Mendocino County, thereby denying them service.

•   Restoration of the currently out-of-service tracks to Willits would help climate change and highway congestion by getting trucks off the highway. Replacing rotted crossties and repairing crossing signals would enable Class 3 service (40 mph for freight, 59 mph for passenger).

Passenger Service to Willits?

•    Conceivably, passengers in the low-density cities to the north of Windsor could be served by the freight operator, providing convenient service connecting Willits, Ukiah, and Cloverdale to SMART at Windsor.

•   Taking long-distance trips off the highway is important method of reducing GHG emissions.

•   While the ride quality wouldn’t equal SMART’s, passengers rode on jointed rails for over a century.

•   Lightweight European diesel multiple units have much lower operating costs than SMART’s DMUs (which would reduce the subsidy needed to make the service worthwhile for the freight operator).

•   TRAC estimates that the existing 78.6 miles of jointed rails from Windsor to Willits could be brought back into Class 3 service for roughly $150 million.

•   Compare that to SMART’s $264 million estimate to build 22.3 miles of tracks to Cloverdale, less than 1/3 of the distance to Willits. The difference is SMART’s gold-plated standard: By building everything new, it seeks to prevent unexpected–and unbudgeted–maintenance issues.

•   Because of the urgency of climate change, TRAC believes it is critical to provide rail service now–and deal with future problems in the future.

•   Building as inexpensively as possible makes it more likely to secure funding sooner.• A private-sector rail operator could potentially be motivated to invest in the capital improvements needed to restore service to Willits, as part of becoming the freight operator.

•   SMART has passed on multiple offers of a TRAC presentation on rail to Willits.

Passenger Service in the Highway 37 Corridor?

•   Partnering with a private-sector freight operator in this corridor could produce a low-cost passenger service that connects SMART to the Capitol Corridor Fairfield station in Solano County.

•   TRAC estimates a low-cost rehabilitation of the existing jointed rail to Class 3 would cost less than $100 million, while SMART’s estimate ranges between $780 million and $1.3 billion.

•   Rehabilitation would be a quick process that could provide near-term help to commuters stuck in Highway 37 congestion.

SMART as a Freight Operator?

•   SMART has no institutional competence in the freight business.

•   SMART does not have an entrepreneurial culture.

•   Senator McGuire either doesn’t understand the financial risks of SMART becoming a common carrier, or is making sure the subject gets zero visibility in his promotion of the Great Redwood Trail.

•   SMART has enough of its own serious problems without entering the freight business: the severe impact of the pandemic on its ridership, and the challenge of gaining public support for a sales tax renewal.

•   With SMART high-cost design standards, the extension of service to Willits and Solano County would be infeasible if it became the freight operator.

What About Humboldt County?

•   Because State policy on climate change means that Humboldt’s future transportation will need to rely more on rail, tearing out the rails is exactly backwards.

•   If the rails are restored to service for freight, they could be used for passenger service as well as for tourist excursion service, a boon for the local economy.

How you can help

Please contact your Assembly member and tell him you oppose SB 69’s railbanking and transfer of freight rights to SMART: Marc Levine [415-479-4920] for Marin and Sonoma Counties, or Jim Wood [(707) 576-2526] for Sonoma, Humboldt and Mendocino Counties.

If you aren’t already a member of the Train Riders Association of California, I invite you to join us. See www.calrailnews.org

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Links to TRAC’s Curated Rail-Related News, June-December 2020

We have gathered links to selected news items over the last six months, listed below. Note: these are PDFs with embedded links.

Some links may not work because some publications move article around after a few months.

June-July 2020

September 2020

October 2020

November 2020

December 2020

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70 Years of “Structural” Racism – Literally (Freeways)

In the 1960’s, fighters of urban freeways often made the point that new freeways were often “…white men’s roads through black men’s bedrooms” as well as being “slum clearance” (sic). The tendency of freeway planners to plot their lines through the least expensive areas, such as black neighborhoods, still shows up in concrete 60-70 years later. And neighborhoods next to freeways often are the least desirable, and most polluted even today in 2020.

https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-24/bulldoze-la-freeways-racism-monument

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High-Speed Rail’s Turning Point: California Assembly Asserts Bipartisan Control

By David Schonbrunn, President, TRAC

This past Thursday, June 11th, there was an unanimous bipartisan vote by the State Assembly to adopt House Resolution 97. Bipartisan votes like HR-97 are exceptionally rare on issues like the biggest construction project in the State’s history. This resolution is doubly historic in that it places a major obstacle in front of California’s troubled high-speed rail project, effectively rejecting the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) draft 2020 Business Plan.

CHSRA had been moving towards signing a multibillion-dollar contract this year that would lock in the electrification of the Merced-Bakersfield route selected by Governor Newsom and advanced by HSR staff. House [Assembly] Resolution 97 directs CHSRA to hold off on adopting the electrification contract until the Assembly has voted on an appropriation. The Assembly asserted its role of overseeing the project through its control of the project’s funding.

It is important to note that the resolution does not go to the Senate or to the Governor. Without the Assembly’s cooperation, CHSRA’s flawed project cannot obtain further funding. By threatening the withholding of funding, the Assembly has taken control of the project, which now cannot proceed without the Assembly’s explicit approval and sign-off.

The balance of power on HSR has changed. One house of the Legislature has found its voice, and has asserted its authority over the HSR project. After 8 years of the Legislature being cowed by Jerry Brown, this turn of events is absolutely stunning.

In my opinion, CHSRA’s CEO Brian Kelly overreached politically, in an attempt to stare down Southern California Assembly members who didn’t want to fund electrification because they were dubious about the direction of HSR. I wrote in the most recent issue of California Rail News (http://www.calrailnews.org/current/) that Kelly was daring these Assembly members to stop him. Now CHSRA has been stopped, quite forcefully. CHSRA’s plans are now worthless. Kelly will have to negotiate some kind of revised project now, or his project and agency are history…

I heard enough Assembly members talking about thoughtful alternatives to the Governor’s project that I am more heartened than any time in my past 16 years of opposition to CHSRA intransigence. The speeches for the Floor debate on the resolution were extraordinary and are well-worth readers’ time. They can be seen here.

It will be interesting to see how Governor Newsom will respond to this political sea change. He doesn’t control legislators the way Jerry Brown once did, and I think he will need to negotiate what the future of CHSRA will be. TRAC has reached out to the Governor’s staff to help get this process started.

TRAC now sees its agenda finally moving forward after many years of frustration. As TRAC has stated many times for many years, we want to see Cap & Trade funds spent on intercity routes that are effective competitors to auto travel. We also want to encourage private sector investment in rail projects, including HSR. It is certain that private sector investments will look nothing like CHSRA’s project, They will be driven by travel markets and economics, rather than political horse-trading and cronyism.


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Fear of Public Transit Got Ahead of the Evidence

Many have blamed subways and buses for coronavirus outbreaks, but a growing body of research suggests otherwise.

A very important article.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/fear-transit-bad-cities/612979/

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Rail-Related News, Monday, June 15, 2020 Coronavirus 4 Edition

A typical weekday…

MTC expects massive traffic jams when people return to work after house arrest

Petaluma sued over Corona (sic) station project after SMART deal reached

Task Force to ponder future of Bay Area transportation

New BART map includes San Jose, though no current timetable for opening (early May)

Caltrain considers full shutdown if unable to secure additional funding

Have you ever seen 180 people on one BART car? BART sounds alarm on finances

New York City councilperson lays out plans for subway recovery

BART to San Jose opening June 13, pandemic or no

Capitol Corridor resumed some train service June 1st

SMART approves plan to go ahead and take over North Bay rail freight service

SMART changes course, will keep weekend service based on public survey

As lockdowns lift, can U.S. cities prevent a traffic catastrophe?

BART’s “Welcome Back” Plan: how things will be different

Florida Brightline wants $350 million to build 5 local stations on Miami-Orlando route

Can New York subways and buses lure back their previous 8 million daily passengers?

Hillsdale Caltrain station closing for six months for construction work

SMART limits staffing, train service cuts in 2020-2021 budget

SMART cutting weekday service by one-third as part of $7 million in cost savings

Caltrain aims to increase service despite budget woes from Covid19 panic

Transit in Japan and France surprisingly safe despite virus

BART opens Milpitas, Berryessa stations on Saturday, June 13th

New BART gates premiere, but unlikely to stop fare evaders

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