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Thursday, May 20, 2010

$202-million Colton Crossing project gets key OK

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A Colton, Calif., railroad overpass meant to unclog a crowded Southern California freight corridor has been approved by a key state panel, ending a two-month logjam that jeopardized the $202-million project, The Press-Enterprise reports. The California Transportation Commission on May 19 unanimously agreed to spend $91 million in state transportation bond money to build the Colton Crossing. The decision also frees $33.8 million in federal stimulus money for the project.

State commissioners signed off on an agreement that will ease automobile traffic, provide noise relief to Colton residents and expand commuter train service in the Inland area.

The overpass will untie a 128-year-old intersection where Union Pacific tracks and BNSF lines cross. Trains wait daily as cross-traffic makes its way in and out of Southern California, spewing diesel emissions into a Colton neighborhood.

Both railroads have long sought federal and state money to separate the lines. The project was recommended to receive $97.3 million from the Prop. 1B transportation bond state voters approved in 2006, but it wasn't until the railroads were selected to receive federal stimulus money earlier this year that the project gained momentum.

With both state and federal money in place, the railroads moved forward with plans for the overpass, which will raise the east-west Union Pacific tracks over the north-south BNSF line. The railroads will pay $73.2 million for the project.

But local and state officials remained wary of the project because it appeared to benefit the railroads more than the public, although the public is paying most of the cost. State transportation commissioners in March rejected an earlier deal and directed the railroads and Southern California Transportation officials to try again.

That led to seven weeks of hasty negotiations between railroad and regional transportation officials.

Commissioner Joseph Tavaglione of Riverside called the agreement "a great deal" that is fair to all parties, including taxpayers.

"I would not have voted for it if I didn't think it was something that we really need," he said after the vote. "It'll do a lot for the cities. There are a lot of folks over there who are breathing that stuff."

Tavaglione added that he also didn't want to lose the $33.8 million in federal money. That would set the project back years, he said. "I'm happy to see it all put together and put to bed."

The project is expected to create more than 900 jobs when construction starts in late 2011, officials said.

The agreement signed earlier this month between the railroads and the Southern California Consensus Group -- a consortium of regional transportation agencies -- includes provisions that officials said will give drivers and Colton residents relief.

A separate agreement between the railroads, Colton officials and San Bernardino Associated Governments outlines plans for an automobile underpass at Laurel Avenue, north of Interstate 10, and improvements along the BNSF tracks that will allow trains to pass through the residential area without blowing their horns.

"The concerns of the residents were mainly noise," said Colton Mayor Kelly Chastain.

Abandoning a rail spur along the Union Pacific tracks south of I-10 near Ninth Street is another important change, Chastain said.

"That's major because the trains would sit there and kids would cross there," she said, noting how children climbed between the parked railcars.

Colton will also close off E and H streets at the railroad tracks to eliminate vehicle crossings.

Easing the bottleneck by building the overpass will allow for more commuter trains in the Inland area, something regional transportation officials said was a must-have in any Colton Crossing deal. Metrolink trains use Union Pacific and BNSF tracks to travel around the region but are limited to certain times to avoid conflicts with freight traffic.

Local transportation officials have said any increase in the number of trains that can pass through the area must include increases in passenger train use.

Railroad and regional transportation officials last month agreed to divert more than $6 million from the Prop. 1B money to rail safety programs in Southern California as part of the overall project agreement.

Reaching the agreement and getting support from transportation officials from coastal Southern California counties required additional concessions from San Bernardino transportation officials.

The sour economy has limited how much bond money the state has to spend. Fearing the Colton Crossing would consume tens of millions of dollars when work begins in 2011, transportation officials in Southern California sought assurances that other projects would not face delays waiting on state funds.

To ease those worries, San Bernardino County transportation officials agreed to pull the Devore interchange -- a massive redesign of the Interstate 15/Interstate 215 merger north of San Bernardino -- from the state bond program. The $400 million project had been set to receive $118 million from Prop. 1B bond proceeds.

By the time work begins in Devore, officials said they are hopeful Colton Crossing will be helping commuters and freight flow through Southern California.

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