“Novato argued that freight trains would bring traffic problems, safety hazards and noise in the city.”

Novato council delays decision on train noise deal
Mark Prado
Article Launched: 10/01/2008 10:55:08 PM PDT

The Novato City Council delayed a decision on a settlement with the North Coast Railroad Authority addressing “quiet zones” at railroad crossings and the need for an environmental impact report.

The City Council held a special meeting on the issue Wednesday night at the police station.

Last year Novato filed a lawsuit saying the rail authority – which wants to revive freight service – should halt work repairing and upgrading its tracks until it completes an environmental review of its 316-mile rail plan, which would bring train traffic to the city.

Novato believed that review would lead to a limit on the number of trains and hours of operation as well as requirements that so-called quiet zones be installed at crossings. Quiet zones involve extensive safety measures that permit trains to roll through crossings without sounding their horns.

Novato argued that freight trains would bring traffic problems, safety hazards and noise in the city.

After month-long negotiations, attorneys for the city and agency developed a “consent decree” in which the rail authority agreed to spend up to $1.25 million for the quiet zones in the city. Until the quiet zones are complete, trains would not be able to run between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., except during emergencies.

But the proposed agreement allows the rail agency to avoid a full environmental review by declaring that the northern and southern operations of the rail improvement plan are separate and therefore do not have to have their cumulative impacts evaluated.

“Please do not sign the consent decree,” Roger Roberts of the Marin Conservation League told the council. “It’s not interest of the city or the public.”

But rejecting the agreement would mean more litigation. The city has already spent $297,000 on the case and is running a deficit.

“We are running a fairly large deficit,” said interim City Manager Patricia Thompson. “We are exceeding expenditures to the tune of about $1 million.”

After the hearing on the issue the council retreated into a closed session, emerging 20 minutes later to announce it would hold another closed session at the Margaret Todd Senior Center at 9 a.m. Saturday, but would not decide the issue that day.

On Wednesday it plans to hold another public hearing before making a decision. The location of that meeting has yet to be determined.

The Ukiah-based rail agency has proposed starting service from Willits, initially hauling garbage down through Sonoma County and Novato to Highway 37, where the trains would turn east and head for Napa County.

The agency has said restoration of freight service could result in as many as 32 trains pulling as many as 60 cars each through Novato every week.