As the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit builds the tracks for commuter service, businesses along the line are upset at losing direct access to freight service, which can increase property values and save shipping costs.
Lagunitas Brewing Company of Petaluma receives three train cars per week full of malted barley from Canada to make its popular IPA, Little Sumpin' Sumpin' and Imperial Stout beers.
The grain travels more than 1,000 miles over rails to reach Petaluma but then stops less than a mile short of the Lagunitas brewery, where it is loaded onto trucks and is driven the rest of the way south on McDowell Boulevard.
This final bit of logistical gymnastics is necessary despite Lagunitas Brewing's location along the train tracks.
The property historically had a rail spur — a kind of driveway off the main tracks into the plant to facilitate freight cars. But that connection was not restored when contractors rebuilt the rail line to prepare for commuter train service in 2016.
As a result, Lagunitas Brewing is forced to use a spur that Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) built just to the north at Adobe Lumber.
“Ideally, we would activate our spur and bring the grain directly here,” said Leon Sharyon, chief financial officer at the Petaluma brewery. “It's silly that our shipments come all that way but not all the way here.”
The Lagunitas Brewing line is one of a handful of rail spurs that have been shut off as SMART builds the tracks for commuter service. Businesses along the line are upset at losing direct access to freight service, which can increase property values and save shipping costs.
SMART says some spurs need to disappear to meet federal safety guidelines. The rail authority is upgrading some spurs that serve legitimate businesses but can't afford to restore all the switches.
The issue highlights the challenges of operating a passenger rail system on a corridor shared with freight service and the competing interests and constituents of each.
“We're duking it out with SMART over the spurs,” said Jake Park, general manager of freight operator Northwestern Pacific. “They have the big stick. It's their way or the highway.”
SMART, which owns the right-of-way, is building the $427 million commuter rail system from San Rafael to Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa. It has an agreement with the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that oversees freight service on the line, to restore spurs to businesses that need them, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager.
After laying dormant for a decade, freight rail restarted in 2011 from Windsor to Schellville, where trains connect with other lines heading east. At the time, property owners along the line expressed interest in connecting to the freight network.
“The agreement was that if it was a bona fide business, they get a connection,” Mansourian said. “We are in full support of getting businesses connected to our freight provider. We see each other as partners.”
Businesses that want a rail spur and were not included in the original agreement can ask SMART to install one at the company's cost, Mansourian said. The lines, including expensive switching equipment, cost about $300,000, he said.
“We are spending taxpayers' money,” he said. “We are accountable to the taxpayers.”
Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax in 2008 to build a 70-mile rail line from Larkspur to Cloverdale. But in the face of slumping sales tax revenues, the rail agency has been forced to build the line in segments.
Some spurs, especially those located near curves in the track, need to be shut down for safety purposes, Mansourian said. The aging tracks and wooden rail ties that can handle 40 mph freight trains are being swapped out for modern steel rails and concrete ties to accommodate trains that will approach 80 mph.
Last year, SMART closed a spur in Rohnert Park used by California Shingle and Shake, according to John Schunzel, the company's general manager. The company had shipped laminated shingles and plywood from Oregon and Washington over the rails and now has to pay higher costs to truck in the materials, he said.
“I think they have an obligation to put the spur back,” Schunzel said. “We would use it immediately if it were in.”
Having a rail spur on a piece of commercial or industrial land can increase property values, according to Nick Abbott, a partner with North Bay Property Advisors.
“It would add value for the right kind of use,” said Abbott, whose company owns a 30,000-square-foot Santa Rosa warehouse that had its spur removed. “I think a tenant would pay more if they thought they would be sending a lot of product east of the Rockies.”
Glenn Kantock, who owns a piece of property along the lines at Airport Boulevard, said he has been contacted by Kendall-Jackson and other companies about using the rail spur on his land.
But that spur sits on the location where SMART is building the northern-most station of the initial segment, and Kantock said workers disconnected the line a week ago. SMART only recently decided to extend the line from Santa Rosa to Airport Boulevard after receiving funding in December.
Kantock said he is missing a business opportunity by not being able to lease his spur to shippers.
“We want our spur back,” he said. “The absence of the spur has created a real void.”
Freight rail advocates tout the environmental benefits of shipping goods via train. They point out that one rail car can carry the same amount of cargo as four semi-trucks.
The same advantages — a reduced carbon footprint from getting drivers out of their cars — helped sell commuter rail to voters in Sonoma and Marin counties in 2008.
“The public would benefit from getting trucks off the road,” Kantock said. “People should be just as excited about freight rail as they are about passenger rail.”
©2014 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)