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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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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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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/

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Land swap

Will Carruthers, THE BOHEMIAN

Petaluma approves complex land deal despite widespread opposition

Late on the night of Monday, Feb. 24, the Petaluma City Council narrowly approved a controversial, multi-part land deal in order to fund a second train station for the city.

Critics of the deal between Petaluma and Lomas Partners, LLC—a Southern California company businessman Todd Kurtin owns—say none of the parties involved have been responsive to criticism of the proposed designs, the process of approving the project and costs to the city.

Ultimately, the deal, which in part requires the city to contribute $2 million to cover some of the costs of the new train station, could leave the city with little leverage over the design of a downtown housing development and a related off-site affordable housing component, critics say.

After hours of discussion and public comment, almost unanimously against the current project proposal, the City Council voted 4 to 3 to support a development agreement with Lomas Partners and several related documents to greenlight Lomas’ interlocked housing development proposals.

There is at least one more significant hurdle for the project. The agreements approved by the City Council will be void if the city cannot secure a formal commitment from SMART to construct the Corona Road Station, which, if completed, will be the city’s second train station.

To that end, the Council directed staff to set up a meeting with SMART to reach an agreement.

Here are some of the details of the deal:

In August 2017, Lomas Partners, LLC, signed a deal with SMART to purchase 315 D St., a 4.48-acre piece of land next to Petaluma’s downtown station, for $5 million. In exchange, Lomas would donate 1.27 acres of land at 890 McDowell Blvd. and build a 150-space parking garage on it. Under plans filed with the city, Lomas would construct 110 homes on the remainder of the 890 McDowell Blvd. parcel.

Continue reading “Land swap”

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Gallaher Homes executive spends $500,000 to derail SMART sales tax citing broken promises

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A stunning infusion of money from an unexpected source has rocked SMART’s campaign to renew the sales tax that subsidizes the commuter rail line running between Sonoma and Marin counties.

Molly Gallaher Flater, daughter of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher, contributed more than $500,000 to defeat Measure I — and suggested she would be willing to double the amount to kill the March sales-tax extension the rail agency projects would raise nearly $2.4 billion over 30 years to operate and expand service.

“If I end up spending $1 million to save our community taxpayers from a $2.4 billion mistake then I feel it is worth every penny,” Flater said in a written statement Thursday.

Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist and longtime critic of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, said he was approached by Gallaher in October about funding a campaign against the tax measure, and met his daughter for the first time this week. When he learned the size of Flater’s donation, his reaction was astonishment.

“How’s falling out of my tree? Are you kidding me?” Arnold said Thursday. “I’d never heard of the Gallahers. They’re running the campaign, I’m just the technical advisor.”

The financial contribution blindsided SMART officials and members of the Yes on Measure I campaign. They expressed dismay Thursday at the prospect a single donor could jeopardize the future of the public transit system’s primary revenue stream for decades to come.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10595957-181/wealthy-donor-spends-500k-to

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SMART board highlights gains in commuter ridership while contesting overall dip in second year

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART board members on Wednesday sharply defended the North Bay rail line’s passenger numbers, touting gains in weekday ridership they said reflected the 28-month-old system’s growing popularity. At the same time, they rejected a recent analysis of passenger records by The Press Democrat that revealed overall ridership decreased in SMART’s second year.

The meeting marked the first time the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board met to publicly discuss detailed passenger data, including daily and weekly ridership, which had never before been disclosed by SMART until two weeks ago. The records were released after agency officials denied they kept such figures, which The Press Democrat sought for months to help evaluate the rail system’s use as SMART pitches an early sales-tax renewal to voters in March.

Agency staff presented an analysis that showed SMART’s ridership has only increased based on reviews of calendar and fiscal years. The hourlong presentation underscored the rise in weekday ridership — capturing the commuters SMART was launched to serve.

“I’m sort of tired of arguing over numbers. Anybody can slice and dice them any way they want,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a two-time SMART board chairwoman. “The story here is that there’s been an upward trend in weekdays year over year in the 2½ years that we’ve been in service. That’s the story.”

The Press Democrat analysis showed for the first time that SMART ridership declined 2.2% in its second year of operations, which ended last August. The decrease was driven by lagging weekend use, which fell 30% from the first year, and continues to drop in the first three months of the agency’s third year of service.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10559318-181/smart-board-highlights-gains-in

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SMART ridership declined in 2nd year, but weekday use growing, newly obtained records show

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Ridership on the SMART train dropped 2.2% in its second year of service, but is slowly starting to recover, according to newly disclosed passenger data that provides unprecedented detail about use of the region’s $600 million commuter rail system.

Daily ridership figures show that just over 706,000 passengers rode Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in its second year of operations, or 15,600 fewer than its inaugural year that began in summer 2017.

The data was obtained by The Press Democrat under the California Public Records Act after SMART repeatedly refused to release the figures, claiming the agency did not break out daily or weekly passenger totals commonly reported by other transit systems.

The decline in ridership during the second year of service stemmed from a 30% drop in weekend ridership. That slide has continued in the first three months of its third year, when weekend ridership fell another 7.4%, a Press Democrat analysis found.

However, the data shows that SMART is building ridership on weekdays, making progress toward one of its main objectives — providing an alternative for commuters driving to work on Highway 101. Weekday ridership rose 4.2% in the second year and was up another 4.2% in the first three months of the third year.

Until now, SMART has not provided any data to the public or its governing board showing any declines in ridership. SMART has only announced the total number of passengers who have boarded its trains since service started Aug. 25, 2017, a figure that increases every month and exceeded 1.6 million riders through November.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10518434-181/smart-ridership-declined-in-2nd

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SMART marks opening of new $55 million Larkspur station

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Leaders and supporters of the North Bay’s commuter rail line cheered the grand opening Friday of SMART’s new southern terminal in Larkspur, marking what they said would be the next chapter linking the train with ferry service to San Francisco.

They cut a ceremonial ribbon to commemorate completion of the $55.4 million, 2.1-mile rail extension leading from San Rafael, hailing it as a transportation solution for generations to come.

“We’re here to celebrate the progress that we’re making for those in Marin and Sonoma, not only for ourselves, but certainly for our children and our grandchildren,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, chairman of the SMART board. “It also is the next step in a ‘promise’ that was made some number of years ago to the community, and this is one more step in satisfying that. We’re not giving up on those commitments that were made by SMART, and this is evidence of that.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10445374-181/smart-marks-opening-of-new

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SMART to begin train service to new Larkspur and Novato stations in mid-December

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART plans to launch service to Larkspur, the rail system’s gateway to San Francisco via the nearby ferry, by mid- December after finishing testing on the extension, helping set the stage for an expanded schedule that agency officials branded “a game changer.”

The 2-mile extension is Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s first completed expansion since it began operating in 2017 on 43  miles of existing track from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts. Completion is a watershed moment for the taxpayer-supported transit system voters approved in 2008. Design, construction and planning service took about 2½ years for the $55.4 million project that includes an accompanying bicycle and pedestrian pathway adjacent to the tracks that is expected to be finished by the end of next year.

The timing of the station’s opening next month and expansion of train service the first week of January is not lost on officials with SMART, who again seek voter support in March for renewal of the sales tax that funds the 2-year-old passenger rail system. Without extension of the commuter rail agency’s primary funding source about a decade early, staff has warned of a need to burn through financial reserves or make deep cuts to SMART’s workforce and service over the next three years.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10340941-181/smart-to-begin-train-service?ref=moststory

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Sonoma County supervisors back study of Fulton Road SMART station

Tyler Silvy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday capped a month of speculation about behind-the-scenes jockeying over a third Santa Rosa-area SMART station, voting 4-1 to fund a study of a new stop in north Santa Rosa.

The discussion had initially pit supervisors Lynda Hopkins and James Gore against Supervisor Shirlee Zane and board Chairman David Rabbitt, as Hopkins and Gore favored a Fulton Road location in north Santa Rosa and Zane favored a station in southwest Santa Rosa, near Roseland or Moorland Avenue. Rabbitt wanted to know where the $11 million to build such a station would ever come from before agreeing to study it.

In the end, Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents parts of eastern Santa Rosa and the entire Sonoma Valley, was the lone board member to vote against the $50,000 study of the Fulton site.

Supervisors began the discussion with an attempt to dispel reports they had been squabbling about the location. But they ended with a threat from Gorin that Sonoma Valley likely wouldn’t support tax renewal for SMART because it doesn’t directly serve her constituents. Hopkins chimed in that deliberations reflected the board’s need for a therapy dog.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10151507-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-back-study