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Tuolumne Supes Send Support For Potential Railroad Improvement Project

Sonora, CA – In a move described by at least two members as a “no brainer” the Tuolumne County supervisors agreed to become boosters for a $34 million local railway upgrade.

The board voted 5-0 to send a supportive letter backing a $20 million funding application by Sierra Northern Railway for a proposal that seeks to rehab 55 miles of track between Riverbank and Standard. Its parent company, Sierra Railroad, would also pony up $14 million in matching funds in order to tap the federal funds, potentially available through the Department of Transportation’s National Significance Freight and Highway Projects grant program.

According to expert assessments, wear and tear over decades of use has diminished the route’s track rating enough that locomotives must travel with five cars or less at a maximum speed of ten miles-per-hour. The projected scope of improvements would encompass track, grade crossing and bridge safety upgrades that will enable the stretch to operate under a Class 2 rating, allowing for freight transport speeds of up to 25 mph with no limit on number of cars.

The project is anticipated to bring substantial economic value to the region, as companies like Sierra Pacific, J.S. West Propane and Cooperstown Quarry, which already use the railway, would further optimize their use. It is also possible that Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 State Historic Park would be able to offer more passenger trips — and even extend them outside the county. Noting these possibilities, the board’s letter further emphasized that the project would allow for quicker delivery of goods to county residents, minimize road congestion, improve air quality and increase public safety.

TCTC Tapped As A Conduit

As the applicant must be a public agency, Tuolumne County Administrative Officer Craig Pedro and County Transportation Council (TCTC) Executive Director Darrin Grossi brought the matter before the TCTC board in October and got a greenlight for TCTC to serve in that capacity. Final approval now pends upon the railway signing a formalized cooperative agreement and the board’s review of the finalized grant application before its Nov. 2 submission deadline.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, whose area includes Jamestown, remarked that the region almost lost Railtown a few years ago due to the recession and state park budget cuts. Emphasizing interest in the railway project from the Oakdale area, he mused that upgraded infrastructure would not only ignite commercial freight activity but also potentially allow any number of passenger train projects such as a dinner train.

Chiming in among a handful of folks making supportive public comments, County Deputy Director of Roads, Duke York pointed to the future possibility of a trail easement walkway. For public benefit, he shared that the railroad crossings that would likely be included in the project scope included ones at Hess Avenue, two on Campo Seco Road and one on Bell Mooney.

Chuckling, York guessed that the Sullivan Creek trestle would be among the bridges. Deadpanning, he described its acutely visible movements during a train crossing as “a great show.” Without skipping a beat he added wholeheartedly, “The whole project is much needed and will benefit the entire community.”