Missed opportunities that keep us on the dock
By Chris Platzer
In 2008 Lennar Mare Island (LMI) asked the City’s help in making Mare Island a commercial hub and a job center. By the end of March 2008, Lennar announced it was ceasing railroad activity on the island because it didn’t think spending $11 million on fixing the rail on MI made any economic sense. At the time, Councilman Bartee publicly stated that doing so would mean missing out on a huge opportunity to create thousands of jobs on Mare Island. Fast forward to 2012 and the recent Council session studying opportunities to develop MI. The public learned that northern MI is a complex tapestry of parcels owned by various entities in various stages of clean up, demolition and repair. And the City has expended a lot of energy exploring the use of MI as a solar farm, a free trade zone and an assembly center for solar panels, as well as, a religious theme park and a residential seaside village. But alas, economically difficult times and a lack of funding has stymied these project. But we did learn that a company called Mare Island Rail Service has been trying for a year to spend $10 million of its own money on rail improvements on MI.
LMI vision for the portion of MI under its control is of a secluded-residential community with a thriving waterfront commercial district resembling Jack London Square. But with the collapse of the housing market and the banking debacle of 2008, LMI has had to shift gears. Today, MI is home to 90 businesses and 2,036 jobs that have been created since the base closed in 1996.
We, the citizens of Vallejo, should demand from our City Council and Staff the creation of 10,000 jobs on MI by the end of the decade. Create a grass roots campaign and call it, say, “10,000 in 2020” and amend the land use plan for MI to reach this goal. With support from citizens and city leaders, we can make MI the vibrant engine of economic growth that it was for 150 years. The use of MI as a port facility would be the catalyst to this end and should and must include rail service.
MI’s strategic location - the convergence of the Napa River and the Sacramento Delta at the Carquinez Strait, access to the Golden Gate and the Asian markets beyond, along with the close proximity of the S.P. RR and I-80 – makes it eminently suited to the intermodal reuse as a port facility.
Currently, there are several businesses that could expand their operations, add more jobs and create competitive advantages by savings in transportation costs if they had access to rail services. For example, Alamillo Rebar, Inc. could receive materials by rail, creating transportation savings and getting trucks off the road. The same would be true for ALCO, Allied Defense Recycling, XKT, Earthquake Protective Services and many more.
Additionally, the docks and the existing cranes on MI allows for the import/export of containers, scrap and break bulk materials on short service, shallow draft ships. This was an idea that was proposed to the City by Santa Rita Shipping in 2006. We should take a page from the city of Pittsburg and model the Port of Mare Island after it. Pittsburg has a dry bulk terminal that generates revenue and jobs for the city. Why not create a Mare Island Port Authority that has the power to turn MI into a tax generating and job making entity? Imagine also what kind of port MI would become if the Army Corps of Engineers were to dreg the channel to allow deep draft ships to tie up. The possibilities are staggering. At the Port of Oakland, rail, trucks, trains and ships converge into the third largest port facility in the country supporting tens of thousands of jobs.
To those who would feel inconvenienced by traffic delays that might be caused by 100-car long trains on the MI causeway or other intersections in town, just visit Jack London Square and experience the trains that run along the waterfront.
Whatever development or reuse happens on MI has a direct effect on the waterfront and the development of our downtown. They are all interrelated. When need to think of rail service on MI holistically and we don’t need to stop there. Imagine for a moment if the railroad tracks at Sperry Mills were bent north and the tracks leading to the Mare Island Causeway were bent south and ran the length of the waterfront and converged at the ferry terminal. If that happened, then the Vallejo Station would be the primary transportation hub for the North Bay. When you have ferry boats, buses, bikes, cars and light rail converging you have a regional transportation system allowing you to get from the waterfront to downtown Napa in 22 minutes by rail. And if that happens, then you might envision a revitalized downtown where tourists from Napa travel by rail to dine, sight see and otherwise spend their money in Vallejo. If nothing else it would make Vallejo a gateway to Napa Valley. Let’s make Vallejo a better place than it already is and let’s start with a thriving Port of Vallejo and a regional light rail system.