BNSF plan to reactivate rail line in Richmond park faces opposition

Coalition to rail against BNSF plan for Miller/Knox park Tuesday
Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline Park

Richmond city leaders are battling plans by BNSF Railway Company to reactivate a rail line in Point Richmond’s Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline Park.

The controversy is happening at the same time the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) advances a long-ranging land use plan amendment for the scenic shoreline park in Point Richmond that includes turning the long-dormant rail line into a segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail. The EBRPD and BNSF are in a legal dispute over the ownership rights of the rail lines within the public park established in 1974.

Allowing diesel trains to operate within a heavily-used recreational park presents safety and health risks, opponents say, and would also block panoramic Bay views from the park.

Richmond Councilmember Demnlus Johnson III called the proposal a “slap in the face” to residents who rely on the park as a refuge from nearby industry.

Richmond Councilmember Demnlus Johnson III speaks at the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.

“People need, they demand physical and visual access to San Francisco Bay, it’s such a treasure,” added Bruce Beyaert, who heads the Trails for Richmond Action Committee. “To have it walled off and unsafe due to operating trains is crazy.”

BNSF calls the park tracks an “active rail line” that the company and its predecessors have owned and operated for over 100 years. Miller/Knox park has “grown up around BNSF’s operations at Ferry Point, and the two have had a long and successful co-existence,” company spokesperson Lena Kent said.

In an October 2018 letter to the EBRPD, a BNSF attorney said the company had “notified the Park District of its expanding business at Richmond Terminal, necessitating the reactivation of its rail use within the easement in the near future.”

Kent says the company has offered the park district a “joint-use solution” that would move the rail line away from the shore, allowing for the construction of a trail in the current rail line location. The plan would increase the safety buffer between trail users and train operations, Kent said. The proposal “makes practical sense and is a much better environmental outcome than the Park’s present plan, which will face regulatory and environmental hurdles,” Kent said.

At EBRPD headquarters in Oakland on Tuesday, however, 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. 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.”

East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt is also skeptical of BNSF’s plans for using the tracks, saying in his e-forum newsletter that the company “doesn’t want to give up any rights to their existing trackage, regardless of condition or prior agreements or settlements with the East Bay Regional Park District.”

After Tuesday’s park district vote, several concerned residents joined Councilmember Johnson in voicing opposition to reactivating the rail line, including representatives of several neighborhood councils in the area.

The 307-acre Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline park opened in 1974 after years of civic advocacy to convert industrial shoreline to a public park. The land use plan for the park, in development since 2013, makes over two dozen recommendations for future park enhancements, not just creating a segment of Bay Trail but also new public picnic areas, an outdoor fitness station and other facilities.