Ventura County approves deal for new Santa Paula branch line rail operator

Responding to earlier concerns, the Ventura County Transportation Commission on Thursday approved a 35-year deal with a railway company to operate and maintain the Santa Paula branch line starting January 1.

“This is a huge and momentous opportunity for us,” said Commission Chairman Kelly Long, a Ventura County supervisor, following the 13-1 vote to green light the lease with Sierra Northern Railway. The company is based in Woodland, northwest of Sacramento.

Owned by the commission, the branch line stretches 32 miles from Ventura through Santa Paula and Fillmore to unincorporated Piru.

Sierra Northern will operate freight trains on the line, said its president and CEO, Ken Beard.

A sister company, Mendocino Railway, will operate tourist trains on the line if it determines it is profitable to do so, Beard said. Or he could choose not to operate on the line, he said.

Fillmore & Western Railway was the former operator of the line. His contract, which included maintenance of the line, expired on June 30. Sierra Northern has reached an interim agreement with the commission to maintain the line until December 31.

The committee was originally scheduled to vote on approving the new deal with Sierra Northern at its December 3 meeting. But he postponed the vote until Thursday after learning that Mendocino Railway had used a prominent estate to acquire 270 acres of land in the northern California town of Fort Bragg in November.

The prominent domain is the government seizure of private property, which occurs without the consent of the owner but with payment to the owner. California Railways can use the eminent domain to seize private property for construction and maintenance of their operations, as they are considered public utilities under the California Public Utilities Code.

The commission learned of the Mendocino Railroad’s use of the prominent estate two days before the December 3 meeting when some commissioners received an email containing links to newspaper articles reporting it. The email was sent by Todd Clark, co-owner of the Museum of Handcar Technology, who for years had tried unsuccessfully to come to an agreement with the commission to run his hand-powered railcars on the branch line.

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Robert Pinoli, president of Mendocino Railway, confirmed that the railway had indeed used a prominent estate to acquire the land in order to expand its operations with more tracks. The railroad operates a scenic tour train known as the “Skunk Train”, which departs from Fort Bragg and Willits, 24 miles away.

In response to Commissioners’ concerns raised by the articles, agency attorney Steve Mattas added language to the deal with Sierra Northern on December 3. The additional wording prohibits the railroad from using the prominent Ventura County estate, said Amanda Fagan, the commission’s director of planning and sustainability.

Chris Hart, vice president of business development for the Sierra Railroad Company, the parent company of the Sierra Northern and Mendocino railways, told the commission on Thursday that the company accepts the additional wording.

“Let’s put that aside,” he said.

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At the December 3 meeting, the commissioners raised other concerns, including whether the deal could result in the transport of hazardous materials by rail and / or storage on the branch line.

Federal law limits the power of states and local governments to impose requirements on the transportation of hazardous materials by rail, Fagan wrote in a report to the committee for its Thursday meeting.

“Sierra Northern explained that the source of all hazardous materials that would be transported on the (branch line) is based on the customers served,” she wrote. “For Ventura County, this would typically be materials such as fertilizer transported to farms, which are already trucked across the county.”

Long said Thursday that the postponement of the Dec. 3 vote gave the committee more time to address concerns.

“It’s not something we take lightly,” she said.

Doug Hauge, the only public speaker on Thursday, urged the commission to reject the deal under which the agency would reimburse Sierra Northern up to $ 450,000 per year for the first five years for railroad expenses in the operation and maintenance of the line.

“Taxpayers are getting ripped off,” said the Fillmore resident. “They, and not the potential rail operator, are paying for track and right-of-way maintenance to the tune of $ 450,000 per year for the first five years of the lease. This will most likely continue for the remaining 30 years. of the lease. “

Long, Vice President Tony Trembley, City Councilor for Camarillo, and Commissioners Daniel Chavez, Jr., Chairman of the Oxnard Planning Commission, Lynn Edmonds, City Councilor for Fillmore, Chris Enegren, City Councilor for Moorpark and Mike Judge, voted to approve the deal. a municipal councilor from Simi Valley.

Commissioners Matt LaVere, Linda Parks, and Carmen Ramirez, all county supervisors, Richard Rollins, a Port Hueneme city councilor, Andy Sobel, a Santa Paula city councilor, William Weirick, an Ojai city councilor, and Jim White , a representative of the citizens also voted yes.

The only commissioner to vote against the deal was Mike Johnson, a Ventura city councilor who raised concerns over a legal dispute between Mendocino Railway and Fort Bragg over the railroad’s acquisition of the 270 acres.

The city sued the railroad, seeking to revoke its public utility status, and opposed the railroad’s request for a loan from the Federal Ministry of Transport. Asked by Johnson, Pinoli said Mendocino could sue the city.

“It is an option that remains on the table,” he said.

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Johnson said on Friday he found it “troubling that the railroad threatened to bankrupt the town of Fort Bragg” with a lawsuit. “I don’t want Ventura to be surprised at how Fort Bragg was.”

Following the commission’s approval of the deal, Beard said, “It has been a long time and we are very happy.

“We have worked diligently with the staff of the commission to address all of their concerns,” he said. “We’re ready to go running.”

Mike Harris covers the county towns of Moorpark, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, as well as transportation throughout the county. You can contact him at [email protected] or 805-437-0323.

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