Back-Seat Driver

California, clean fuel leader, weighs oil, coal trains

A fight has ignited over coal trains that may run from Utah to an Oakland seaport. Pictured here is a coal train in northeast Wyoming.
A fight has ignited over coal trains that may run from Utah to an Oakland seaport. Pictured here is a coal train in northeast Wyoming. AP photo/Aug. 22, 2006

Long lines of oil and coal trains could some day rumble regularly through Sacramento – as strange as that would seem in California, a state that leads the push for clean fuels.

Benicia will hold yet another public hearing Monday night on the Valero refinery’s controversial plan to run as many as two 50-car crude oil trains daily through Northern California. Sacramento and other up-rail communities want tough safety measures against oil train spills and explosions, one of which killed 47 people in a Canadian town.

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor said he’ll be in Benicia to testify.

“I am going to ask the council to require the project applicant address the up-rail impacts,” he said. “We believe the oil and rail companies have the capacity to provide safe cars and to stabilize the volatile material at its source.”

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna took it a step further than Saylor. In a letter last week to Benicia, Serna urged Benicia to simply deny the project altogether.

The crux: Federal rules say cities and states can’t tell the railroads what safety measures to employ. But, can Benicia tell Valero that Valero’s city permit is dependent on the oil company getting its rail carrier, Union Pacific, to agree to added safety measures?

Coal trains coming?

The Sacramento area may be affected by another Bay Area train battle, this one over a developer’s plan to ship Utah commodities (read: coal) on trains to a terminal under construction in Oakland. The coal trains, possibly a mile long, likely would come through Sacramento.

In Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and environmentalists are concerned about health effects from coal dust. California itself is a leader in the effort to use cleaner fuels; coal use is waning here. It galls some that Oakland would participate in shipping coal to other countries.

Oakland officials are studying the health and safety issues to determine whether the city can and should say no to coal trains. Hancock is working on several legislative bills to close the door on public funds supporting coal shipments.

“Exporting a product to other countries that no longer has a (future) in the U.S. is irresponsible,” she said.

If coal trains do come through Sacramento, it may be daily, and they may be mile-long, 100-car transports.

The terminal operator sent a letter to Schaaf last year saying it will use “newly designed” covered rail cars so that “fugitive” coal dust isn’t spread around during transport. A Sierra Club attorney said her group doesn’t trust the Oakland terminal operator to keep its word.

A spokesman for Union Pacific said it ships coal in uncovered or open cars. Wyoming coal is sprayed with a topping agent to reduce dust. Coal from Utah is not as dusty and is not sprayed, UP officials said.

Sales tax measure

A new survey shows 69 percent of likely Sacramento County voters would support a half-cent sales tax to fix roads and improve transit service, including finally getting light rail to the airport. Elected officials in the county’s cities and on the Board of Supervisors will decide next week whether to launch the process of putting a measure on the November ballot.

Sixty-nine percent might seem solid, but under state law proponents will need 67 percent approval. The survey, conducted for the Sacramento Transportation Authority, shows support bumping up to 70 percent when voters hear some of the project details but suggests an organized opposition campaign could cause it to drop as low as 62 percent.

Red light cameras

Two notable transportation bills got early boosts last week, one involving red light citation costs, the other drunk driving. Both come from state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

Senate Bill 986 attempts to fix a turn of phrase from back in the 1990s that has allowed law enforcement agencies in Sacramento and elsewhere to fine drivers more than $500 (in some places up to $600) for failing to come to a complete stop before making a right turn on a red light.

Hill’s bill would knock the fine down to around $250 to $290, the amount legislative officials said they originally meant it to be. We’ve heard from a lot of drivers shocked by the fine amount, often when they didn’t realize they hadn’t fully stopped. The number of right-on-red citations has gone up since cities started using red light cameras that have video capabilities a few years ago.

Hill points out the current fine is one-third of some Californians’ monthly take-home pay. It’s the same amount if you refused to pull over for an emergency vehicle.

The bill sailed through a Senate transportation committee vote last week.

But it prompted words of warning from Jeff Thom, president of the California Council of the Blind. Thom pointed out that pedestrians are at risk anytime a car in front of them fails to stop before turning right. The bill is “well intended,” Thom said, “but it only sends a message that it is the type of infraction that doesn’t mean anything.”

Hill responded that a $250 fine does, in fact, speak to the seriousness of the violation. “I don’t think if the cost is $250 instead of $500, (drivers) are going to say it is OK.”

Drunk driving law

We wrote last week about Hill’s effort with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to require breathalyzers to be installed for at least six months in cars of anyone convicted of drunk driving in California. For multiple offenders, the devices, also known as an Ignition Interlock Device, could be required for up to three years.

The bill, SB 1046, has now gathered 17 co-authors and counting, and it got solid support last week at the Senate public safety committee.

It’s a complicated proposal with a lot of moving parts. But it’s not like California is breaking new ground; 25 other states already have mandatory ignition interlock laws.