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Trails and Rails Battle in San Francisco Bay Shoreline Park

Can freight trains and a scenic shoreline park along San Francisco Bay coexist, or are they incompatible uses? The East Bay Regional Park District voted to remove old rail tracks that BNSF Railway wants to reactivate. A local court may decide.
April 16, 2019, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The San Rafael Bridge, as viewed from the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline in 2010.

"[A] battle between the regional park district and BNSF Railway could soon determine whether the 307-acre space remains a peaceful sanctuary or becomes home to a busy diesel rail line — something many residents adamantly oppose," writes the San Francisco Chronicle's transportation reporter, Michael Cabanatuan.

The feud over [Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline's] fate began about six months ago, as the East Bay Regional Park District [EBRPD] was wrapping up nearly six years of work on a plan to improve the space — including removing unused railroad tracks.

BNSF officials bristled over the decision and sent a pair of letters to the district arguing that the railroad owns the rights to run trains on the right of way, and plans to do so. The fight [EBRPD v BNSF Railway] is now being waged in Contra Costa County [Superior] Court, and park users and public officials have formed a coalition to combat BNSF’s plan to run trains through Miller-Knox Park.

"At EBRPD headquarters in Oakland on [March 19], the Board of Directors voted unanimously to move forward with a land use plan that assumes a future without a rail line in the park," reported Mike Aldax for The Richmond Standard.

Prior to the vote, the park district’s general counsel, Carol Victor, rejected legal claims made in a 17-page opposition letter by BNSF’s attorney. District member Colin Coffee said the company’s assertion that the rail line will ever be more than unused, abandoned track are “at best fantasy, and at worst just dishonest.”

The contested tracks which the park district wants to remove haven't been used for over 40 years, and would likely have to be rebuilt, according to KCBS Radio. However, "BNSF calls the park tracks an 'active rail line' that the company and its predecessors have owned and operated for over 100 years," adds Aldax.

Miller/Knox park has “grown up around BNSF’s operations at Ferry Point, and the two have had a long and successful co-existence,” [BNSF] spokesperson Lena Kent said.

Cabanatuan provides the historical context of the rail line and the city of Richmond

BNSF Railway’s predecessor, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, brought Richmond to life in 1900 when it located its western terminus there. The railroad built a large rail yard near what became Point Richmond and a tunnel and tracks to Ferry Point on the shoreline, where passenger trains rolled onto barges to San Francisco and freight trains were taken to other bay ports.

When the park district bought the right of way in 1991 via eminent domain, the railroad was granted an easement to run trains to two industrial sites, both of which are now defunct.

What's not mentioned in any local or regional media coverage of the controversy is the vital role that rail plays in goods movement, not just from an economic but also an air quality perspective as well, even when the trains are being pulled by diesel-powered locomotives.

"[O]ne rail car can haul as much as four tractor-trailer trucks," according to a recent New York Times article (posted here) about a $100 million effort led by the New York City Economic Development Corporation to invest in local freight rail infrastructure so as to reduce truck traffic and emissions.

Full Story:
Published on Sunday, April 7, 2019 in San Francisco Chronicle
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