By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
North Coast Railroad Authority and the city of Novato have reached a tentative deal on the return of freight service in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties.
The rail authority said it wants to start train service between between Napa County and Windsor next month, but other hurdles remain.
The authority still needs to finalize a joint operating agreement with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the commuter rail agency that owns the tracks. And it must certify a final environmental report on the freight project.
Earlier this month, federal rail regulators lifted a 10-year embargo on freight traffic over the Northwestern Pacific Railroad south of Windsor. They halted traffic in 2001 after the route was damaged by heavy storms.
The authority has since spent $68 million on repairs and the 62-mile stretch now meets U.S. safety standards, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
NCRA has contracted with a private operator, NWP Co., to provide the cargo service.
Novato sued the rail authority in 2007 to halt the project, charging it failed to consider environmental impacts of train traffic in the city.
The two sides reached a settlement the following year. The $1.5 million deal called for “quiet zones” at rail crossings in the city, use of low-emission locomotives and other provisions. NCRA also agreed to pay Novato’s legal costs.
But NCRA last year asked for some changes in the agreement, and the two sides have been negotiating ever since.
“It appears to be a done deal,” said Mitch Stogner, NCRA’s executive director.
Novato attorney Jeff Walter didn’t return a call seeking comment. But in a May 17 email to the authority, he said Novato has tentatively agreed to the changes.
They still must be approved by NCRA’s board, the Novato City Council and a Marin County judge.
On Monday, NCRA notified Novato that it plans to start freight service “on or about June 16, 2011.”
Service would begin with three round trips a week between Windsor and the rail junction south of Napa, where NWP connects to the national rail system. Initially, customers will use the rail line to ship grain, lumber, aggregate and other commodities, according to NWP Co. president John Williams.
The railroad remains closed north of Windsor.