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One people-moving proposal for easing highway congestion turns back the clock – have passenger trains travel between Suisun City in Solano County and Novato in Marin County, with an American Canyon stop in Napa County.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) spearheaded the recently released, state-funded Novato-to-Suisun City passenger rail service study. SMART officials presented the results Wednesday to the Napa Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors.

Proponents say trains could offer an alternative to driving congested Highway 12 and Highway 37. Local transportation officials pondered whether service with startup costs estimated at $1 billion is a realistic dream or just a dream.

“I for one thought this was a much longer shot than it looks to be,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, chair of the Napa Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors. “So that’s encouraging.”

The local elected officials on the Board of Directors also asked pointed questions.

“We need to have a full and complete picture of what it means,” Board member and Yountville Mayor John Dunbar said.

A big question is whether today’s commuters can expect to catch a train in American Canyon within their commuting lifetimes.

“To some degree, it remains to be seen,” SMART Chief Engineer Bill Gamlen said before the meeting. “A lot of work and study are going into what to do about Highway 37.”

Highway 37 between Vallejo and Novato is two lanes with rush-hour traffic at a crawl and flooding problems. Creating a wider, flood-proof road is a challenge because of costs estimated at $1 billion to $3.4 billion and the road’s passage through environmentally sensitive wetlands.

Gamlen said the train option to provide relief for Highway 37 problems is something that could be delivered fairly quickly, within a few years.

Tracks already exist along the proposed route and are used for freight service. SMART owns the rail from Novato to Napa Junction near American Canyon, a distance of 24 miles. Union Pacific owns the rail from Napa Junction to Suisun City, a distance of 15 miles.

But tracks good enough for slow-moving freight service must be refurbished to handle passenger trains traveling 60 mph or faster. New wooden ties, rails and ballast are needed, the feasibility study said.

The 1911 Black Point swing bridge over the Petaluma River in Sonoma County would have to be replaced. Possibly a second-hand bridge can be used to keep down costs. The current version has the center rotate out to make room for boats, the study said.

Napa County has its own rail bridge along the route and it’s a towering landmark amid south county wetlands – the 1979 Brazos Bridge over the Napa River. The study found this drawbridge can remain and would need only minor repairs.

The 40-mile Novato-to-Suisun City route would link Napa County with other regional rail services. The Capitol Corridor trains running from Sacramento to San Jose stop in Suisun City. The Novato station is part of the new SMART system running from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

One option is to start service with four roundtrips daily and speeds of 60 mph. This could cost $780 million to $898 million and be running four years after funding is available, the study said.

Another option is to have 10 roundtrips daily and speeds of 79 mph. This could cost $1.13 billion to $1.3 billion and be running six years after funding is available.

“Yes, it is a lot of money, but it is a long alignment,” Gamlen said.

Given the American Canyon area would likely have the only Napa County station, the American Canyon contingent on the Napa Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors has a direct stake in the rail service outcome.

“It’s possible,” American Canyon Mayor Leon Garcia said before the meeting. “That asset (the tracks) is something I’ve always advocated we hang onto. At some point, it might be a viable option.”

Board member and American Canyon City Councilmember Mark Joseph said Union Pacific might see conflicts between freight traffic and passenger traffic on its stretch of line. Gamlen replied that the issue would have to be worked out with Union Pacific.

Elected officials from other parts of the county also have thoughts on the possible passenger rail line. Dunbar asked Gamlen whether anyone has analyzed whether flooding and sea level rise could swamp tracks paralleling Highway 37. The answer was no analysis has been done.

“So timing and cost won’t be going down, it will be going up,” Dunbar said.

“It’s hard to say,” Gamlen said.

“I think it’s a fairly safe guess,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar also noted the state could target areas around mass transit hubs for denser, multi-story housing. One proposed law would allow by-right high-rise housing within a half-mile of such stations, taking away local control over stopping such projects.

Gamlen said the rail study identified logical areas where stations would go, but didn’t delve into the housing issues. That could come with future studies.

Dunbar said elected officials have to deal with potential land use decisions on housing.

“It would be misleading not to add that component, to make it sound like, ‘This is great, we can move a lot of passengers, a lot of employees through counties,’ but there’s a lot more to it,” Dunbar said.

Board member and county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza expressed enthusiasm at the possibility of a passenger rail line. The vision is about connectivity and mobility and giving residents different ways to move around, he said.

“If this creates housing opportunities, I think it’s a good thing for our community, done in a responsible way,” Pedroza said.

Gamlen said that SMART’s priority is extending its existing line to Cloverdale in Sonoma County. What happens with the Novato-to-Suisun City line idea could in large part be up to the California State Transportation Agency.

“At this point, this has been the state of California, they have funded this study, they are the ones who are kind of driving this,” Gamlen said. “So we would look to them for guidance to see if they want to take this to another level.”

This is the second study in 20 years looking at passenger rail in Napa County. A rail study from 2003 by the Napa Valley Transportation Authority and Solano Transportation Authority looked at establishing train service from Calistoga to Vallejo and from American Canyon to Suisun City.

That 2003 study said cost to start the service would be $216 million, with annual operating subsidies of $3.6 million to $5.9 million. It’s unclear what the expenses might be today.

The idea to date has gone nowhere. Instead, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority started express bus service between the city of Napa and Fairfield-Suisun in 2013.

Napa County a century ago had passenger trains running through the valley, but lost them to the success of automobiles. Now the question is whether too much success for autos and the resulting congestion could give passenger trains a rebirth.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.