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STB rejects North Coast Railroad Co.’s offer to take over rail line on Eel River

Sonia Waraich, FORT BRAGG ADVOCATE-NEWS

Federal regulators have decided to turn down a late application from a shadowy corporation seeking to take over the 175 miles of rail line stretching from Willits to Eureka, which may have submitted a fraudulent bank statement with its filing earlier this month.

“(North Coast Railroad Company’s) notice of intent will be rejected,” the Surface Transportation Board’s decision states. “NCRCo has not articulated a sufficient reason why its notice could not have been filed by the May 31 deadline, especially given that NCRCo has been an active participant in this proceeding and has noted, in previous filings, its intent to file an (offer of financial assistance).”

North Coast Railroad Company’s proposal to resume service along the rail line would have blocked the ability of the Great Redwood Trail Agency, formerly the North Coast Railroad Authority, to convert the line, which has been out of service for 20 years, into a trail. Part of the process of doing so included getting the OK from the STB to railbank the line, that is to preserve the rail line’s right of way by using it as a trail until conditions for rail service improve.

The North Coast Railroad submitted a poorly redacted filing with the federal STB almost two weeks ago that shows on any given day between March 31 and April 21, its balance with the Self-Help Credit Union fluctuated from less than $100 to a high of $3,269.96. That’s a lot less than $15.7 million beginning and ending balance at the top of the statement.

Read more at https://www.advocate-news.com/2022/06/10/north-coast-railroad-co-s-stb-filing-includes-potentially-fraudulent-bank-statement/

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Op-Ed: California needs to put its money where its mouth is on public transportation

Jeff Morales, CALMATTERS

Decades of federal and state transportation policy and funding have focused primarily on the automobile — and the roads and highways needed for us to get around in them. While this focus produced many benefits, it also ignored or created significant problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, a key driver of climate change. Today, half of all greenhouse gas emissions in California come from transportation.

Agencies and processes have been built to support this focus. Caltrans and regional transportation agencies receive federal and state funds not only to build and maintain, but also to develop highway and road improvements — doing the planning, public engagement, preliminary design, environmental and other work needed to get projects ready. It can take years for major projects to make it through the approvals required before construction can start. Significant resources are dedicated to this annually, and there are statewide structures in place to carry it out. It is necessary work in order to have a pipeline of projects ready to be implemented when funding becomes available.

No parallel system is in place for public transit and rail projects, however.

Much of this structural disconnect flows down from decades of federal policy and funding constraints. For the most part, public transit and rail improvements are a series of one-off projects, with local agencies on the hook to develop and advance them. Unless the governor and Legislature address this, California’s ambitious climate-related goals for increased public transit and rail will not be realized. If the state wants to change the outcomes, then it is vital that it change the processes and funding that produce the outcomes.

Read more at https://calmatters.org/commentary/2022/05/california-needs-to-put-its-money-where-its-mouth-is-on-public-transportation/

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Federal rail board wants to hear out mysterious coal train proposal, jeopardizing Great Redwood Trail project

Andrew Graham, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The federal body that oversees the nation’s railroad rights of way indicated this week that it will consider the proposal from a mysterious Wyoming company to reconstruct defunct rail lines and ship coal out of Humboldt Bay to Asia.

The coal export proposal, widely regarded as unrealistic, is facing staunch opposition from local and state lawmakers, the tight margins of a declining coal industry and would need up to $2 billion to restore abandoned sections of track in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, according to previous state estimates.

But the decision by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board could complicate another North Coast venture: the proposed Great Redwood Trail, a 320-mile bicycle and pedestrian recreation route along former railways stretching from Eureka to San Francisco Bay.

The trail project, championed by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and many other elected officials, conservationists and economic development officials, made significant strides in March with the creation of a state agency to spearhead the effort.

The coal shipping proposal surfaced in August 2021, when a newly-formed, Wyoming-based entity called the North Coast Railroad Co. filed documents with the federal rail board suggesting it could raise the funds to restore abandoned rail segments.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/federal-rail-board-wants-to-hear-out-mysterious-coal-train-proposal-jeopar/

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New gas station bans working their way through Sonoma County communities

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Maybe 138 gas stations in Sonoma County is enough for now. Or really, forever.

That’s the thinking behind a wave of new ordinances making their way through local governments around the region that would prohibit permit applications for new petroleum fueling stations or expansions.

While it may be years yet before electric vehicles dominate the roadways, elected officials think planning ahead for a successful transition away from planet-fouling, gas-powered cars makes sense. And that includes putting a stop to any more fuel pumps in the county.

The Rohnert Park City Council took the first vote on its new ordinance Tuesday and is expected to adopt a citywide ban on new gas pumps at its March 22 meeting. The Sebastopol council will take up the matter April 5, when it considers a draft ordinance already approved by the planning commission. And Santa Rosa City Council’s climate action subcommittee has sent a recommended ban to its planning commission which, if OK’d there, would move onto the City Council later this year.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/new-gas-station-bans-working-their-way-through-sonoma-county-communities/

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Highway 37, a major Bay Area corridor, could be fully underwater as soon as 2040

Joshua Bote, SFGATE

Route 37 PEL Meeting Jan 25 2022 (Caltrans)

California State Route 37, the major throughway that bridges the divide between Highway 101 and Interstate 80 and serves thousands of drivers daily in the North Bay, is in dire straits.

A recent dispatch from the California Department of Transportation warns that nearly the entire route — spanning Novato to Vallejo — could be “permanently submerged” as soon as 2040 by increasing weather crises and rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Its proximity to the San Pablo Bay makes this route especially vulnerable. The marshlands in the bay, while vital for preventing flooding, are in a precarious state, with a 285-foot-wide levee only being breached in 2015, after the area had been drained and used as farmland for decades. The marshlands in that area still require decades to fully establish.

If left unchanged, the effects will be severe, Caltrans warns. Alternate roads will be clogged up, worsening traffic on other Bay Area highways. Caltrans also warns that “economic loss and reduced opportunity” for Solano County residents could be major impacts.

Already, the impacts of rising sea levels are evident on the highway, with closures popping up more and more in recent years.

Caltrans and affected Bay Area counties have worked over the past decade to shore up Highway 37, with multiple studies conducted and crews working to raise pavement on the highway. Another one, called the Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) study, is set to begin this month and is expected to be the most comprehensive look into the corridor.

Read more at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Highway-37-could-be-underwater-2040-16786102.php?

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Santa Rosa made city buses free to students in July. The program appears to be a success

Andrew Graham, PRESS DEMOCRAT

As Santa Rosa CityBus seeks to maintain public transit during the ongoing pandemic, student passengers are giving ridership a boost after the city made travel free for students through their senior year of high school.

The program, a one-year pilot, so far seems to be a success, according to transit officials, marking a rare bright spot in a dark time for public transportation.

Overall, the bus system was at 61% of it ridership before the pandemic by the end of November, Yuri Koslen, Santa Rosa City Transit Planner, said in a Dec. 15 interview. The bright spot is that youth ridership exceeded pre-pandemic levels by roughly 20% in October and 27% in November, Koslen said.

Paid for by grants from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Transportation Fund for Clean Air, Santa Rosa began one year of free bus trips for students up to the 12th grade on July 1.

Since then, the hulking blue and silver city buses carried young residents at least 80,000 times from then until Nov. 30. Youth ridership has leveled out at around 20,000 trips a month.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/santa-rosa-made-city-buses-free-to-students-in-july-the-program-appears-to/

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Train lines: How two Press Democrat owners finessed a Petaluma real estate deal

Will Carruthers, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

Last week, we reported that two owners of the Press Democrat, Darius Anderson and Doug Bosco, helped craft a state-funded bailout deal benefiting Bosco’s privately owned Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company while Anderson’s Platinum Advisors was a contract lobbyist for SMART from 2015 to 2020.

This week, we report the details of a real estate transaction in downtown Petaluma in which the A. G. Spanos Corporation paid $1.4 million to SMART and $1 million to another public rail agency which is financially intertwined with Bosco’s railroad company for their “right of ways” on less than 600 feet of railroad track traversing the triangular lot upon which Spanos is currently building the North River Apartments. A right of way is a perpetual, transferable easement allowing its owner to traverse the property of another. Without securing these easements, Spanos’ project was dead in the water and could not move through Petaluma’s planning process.

The Spanos property abuts the Petaluma tidal estuary, a row of historic businesses and restaurants on Petaluma Blvd. North, and Hunt & Behrens livestock, poultry and pet-feed operation. Public records show that SMART’s executive director, Farhad Mansourian, allowed Anderson to guide SMART’s easement sale to Spanos. Simultaneously, Bosco negotiated Spanos’ purchase of an overlapping right of way on the short spur owned by the North Coast Railroad Authority. “NCRA” is a state-chartered rail agency which critics say was largely operated to benefit Bosco’s company, commonly known as NWP Co.

Mansourian allowed Anderson to work on several projects that were outside the contracted scope of work of Platinum Advisors’ role as SMART’s Sacramento lobbyist, which began in 2015. Last week, we reported on how Anderson’s firm, as part of its work for SMART, lobbied on state legislation which helped the interests of his business partner, Bosco, as the NCRA and the NWP Co foundered. This week we report another instance of Anderson leveraging his position as SMART lobbyist to benefit his media business partner and political mentor, Bosco.

Read more at https://bohemian.com/train-lines/

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Windsor exploring ban on new gas stations, gas infrastructure

Brandon McCapes, SOCONEWS

The Town of Windsor will soon join the City of Petaluma in banning new gas station infrastructure, following a recommendation by the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA).

At their Nov. 3 meeting, the town council voted unanimously to direct planning staff to explore a ban, which would not affect current gas stations, but only prevent the establishment of fueling stations providing fossil fuels, or adding to the number of fuel pumps at existing stations.

Kim Voge, a planner from the community development department, said that, following Petaluma’s ban in March of this year, the RCPA has been recommending all jurisdictions in Sonoma County follow suit.

The Town of Windsor declared a climate emergency in September 2019, and the general plan includes policies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and achieve net zero emissions.

Currently, Windsor allows gas stations in three zoning districts (community commercial, service commercial and gateway commercial), requiring a use permit; the ban would be implemented by removing gas stations from the zoning ordinance, making all gas stations “non-conforming.”

Read more at

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The climate bill inside the infrastructure bill

Dan Farber, LEGAL PLANET

The US takes a major step forward on the path to carbon neutrality.

Late Friday, the House passed Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better law. As the Washington Post aptly observed, the bill is the biggest climate legislation to ever move through Congress. It also attracted key support from some Republicans, which was essential to passing it in both houses of Congress. Biden is pushing for an even bigger companion bill, but the infrastructure bill is a huge victory in its own right.

One major area of spending is transportation. Some of that goes for roads and bridges. But as the Washington Post reports, there’s a lot of money for rail and mass transit:

“Another $66 billion will go to passenger and freight rail, including enough money to eliminate Amtrak’s maintenance backlog. Yet another $39 billion will modernize public transit, and $11 billion more will be set aside for transportation safety, including programs to reduce fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists.”

There’s also $7.5 billion in funding for zero and low-emission buses and ferries. There’s another $7.5 billion to build out charging capacity for electric vehicles, and $6 billion for energy storage.

The law also addresses a big bottleneck in the energy system: lack of adequate long-distance transmission capacity. We will need much more robust transmission to achieve a carbon neutral grid. For instance, Iowa can generate more wind power than it can get to markets in Chicago and further east. Transmission also helps to deal with weather issues: even if it’s too cloudy for solar in one state, the sun may be shining a state or two over. The effort to build new transmission has been stymied, however, by resistance from utilities and state governments.

Read more at https://legal-planet.org/2021/11/08/infrastructure/

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Railroaded: Behind the scenes of SMART’s freight takeover

Will Carruthers, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

Two Press Democrat owners deeply involved in North Bay rail politics

On the muddy banks of the Petaluma River in downtown Petaluma, a new housing complex is rising. Crews employed by the A.G. Spanos Corporation, a Stockton-based developer, are constructing a 184-unit apartment complex on a lot sandwiched between a row of historic businesses and the tidal slough.

Before laying out the concrete foundations, the crews ripped out a few hundred feet of railroad tracks that crossed the lot. The old rails were part of a spur located less than a mile off the century-old main line running between Sausalito and Eureka. Planning and construction could not commence until Spanos controlled the legal “rights of way” on the tracks.

Rights of way are contractual easements that allow their owners to travel across another’s property. In this case, the easements on the riverfront tracks had value because the developer needed to extinguish them in order to build. That fact cost Spanos millions of dollars.

Public records reveal that lengthy negotiations between the Spanos corporation and two state-created rail transportation agencies for ownership of the rights of way preceded breaking ground for the construction project. One right of way was owned by a passenger line, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district — SMART. A second right of way was owned by a state-owned freight line, North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA). Both railway agencies saw the sale of the easements as potential cash cows.

Read more at https://bohemian.com/freight-railroaded/