Rail accord should help Mare Island

Rail accord should help Mare Island By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen/Times-Herald/ Posted: 08/28/2011 01:01:14 AM PDT A recently reached long-term agreement between a rail service firm and Vallejo is the first step to transforming Mare Island into the economic driver it could be, company spokesman Randy Peterson said Friday. Step two is updating the island's rail infrastructure and ship-loading facilities, he said. In place about a year, Washington-based Tri-City & Olympia Railroad, doing business as Mare Island Rail Service, has been serving the island and up to Vallejo's Flosden Junction, said Jason Keadjian, spokesman for the island's main developer Lennar Mare Island. The rail firm already has several clients on and off the island, but its potential was limited until the agreement with the city was signed last month for use of rail lines through town, Peterson said. "We're really excited," Peterson said. "So far, we've had nothing but a warm reception from everyone." The city signed a 20-year agreement -- long enough to allow the firm to reap the benefits of the infrastructure it's promised to install and relieving the city of its responsibility for subsidizing the service, assistant city manager Craig Whittom said. Vallejo has helped subsidize the rail service to the tune of up to $50,000 annually for about a decade, Whittom said. American Canyon's Swiss-based chocolate factory, Barry Callebaut USA L.L.C., is among the firm's clients, as is Mare Island-based train car repair firm Alstom and Alco Metal & Iron Company, Peterson said. "We bring in sugar from Mexico by train for the chocolate maker, and store it in the old Navy shipping and receiving building, and then it's trucked to the factory," he said. This saves the candymaker shipping costs and takes some trucks off the road, plus it uses a former empty Mare Island building, Peterson said. Peterson said he envisions increased use of the island for exporting goods by ship. By combining access to trucking, rail and ship transportation, Mare Island could become a regional commercial hub, the Montana native said. "I've seen old photos of people offloading material from ships on the north end, and there are finger piers on the south end that could be used again," Peterson said. "It will never be a major port, but could be an important regional one." Regular dredging of the strait would have to be ensured, he said. "That would be the government's part, and private industry would improve the infrastructure and we could put Mare Island back to work, and make it the asset it could and should be," Peterson said. "Mare Island currently offers rail, trucking and barging options -- this is an attractive combination to commercial and industrial tenants and gives Mare Island a competitive advantage over other cities looking to attract new businesses," Keadjian said. But, for now the rail service is still being subsidized by the company and Lennar Mare Island, which owns most of the tracks. Vallejo owns the rail on the Mare Island Causeway up to the junction with the California Northern Railroad at Flosden Acres, Keadjian said. And other issues remain. For instance, though rail tracks criss-cross the island, most are unusable, Peterson said. "When the Navy built the tracks in the '40's, engines were smaller and could make sharper turns," he said. Today's engines can't make those turns, rendering a large percentage of the island's tracks superfluous. But the train company's officials are discussing options, he said. "I see ships, exports, helping the country and the local economy, and this is a great place to do that from," Peterson said. "If everybody's pulling in the same direction, like those Budweiser horses, if everybody wants it, you could be rockin' in five years. Maybe less." Contact staff writer Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at (707) 553-6824 or rzrihen@timesheraldonline.com.

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