By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Freight trains could roll on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties on Wednesday after the Novato City Council late Tuesday agreed to revise a legal settlement that sets guidelines for trains running through the city.
Two council members voted against the proposed changes in the settlement, saying they were worried about the impacts of train traffic.
“My first concern is for safety,” said City Councilwoman Carole Dillon-Knutson. She also asked about noise and emissions.
The railroad should meet stricter timelines for noise mitigation, said Councilwoman Pat Eklund.
City staff, however, said the changes sought by the North Coast Railroad Authority were a good compromise. The settlement passed on a 3-2 vote.
Freight trains will return to the North Bay on Wednesday, said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the NCRA. The agency has been conducting test runs on the tracks in recent weeks.
NCRA has leased the rail line to a private operator, NWP Co., which plans to start service with three round trips per week and trains up to 15 cars long.
Trains would mostly haul feed and grain, wine, lumber and aggregates.
Federal transportation regulators halted freight trains on the Northwestern Pacific in 2001 when the line was badly damaged by winter storms.
Over the past four years, the railroad authority spent $68 million in tax money to reopen a 62-mile stretch between Napa County and Windsor.
Novato sued NCRA in 2007, charging it didn’t consider environmental impacts of cargo trains.
In 2008, a Marin County judge approved a settlement that required the rail authority to pay for “quiet zones” at seven public rail crossings in the city.
The settlement also ordered the authority to weld the tracks for noise reduction in a 19-mile stretch around Novato and use a low-emissions locomotive.
In addition, the authority agreed to pay Novato’s legal costs and $100,000 for noise mitigation. The various improvements cost more than $1.3 million.
The authority asked Novato last year to change several terms of the settlement, including the requirement for welded rails.
It would be a waste of public funds for the authority to weld the existing rails, it said, because Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is planning to install new welded rails for its commuter train service starting in 2014.
The authority also said SMART has agreed to pay for quiet zone improvements with federal transportation grants.
The rail authority asked for delays in construction of some improvements and promised to operate trains at low speeds in the Novato area until they are done.
Earlier this year, Novato’s staff tentatively agreed to most of the changes. But Novato said the authority would still be responsible for the improvements if they aren’t completed on time.