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Friday, March 26, 2010

Colton Crossing agreement rejected

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Unless agreement can be reached in two weeks, $131 million meant to separate railroad tracks in Colton will go to other Southern California projects, and leave the region's two freight railroads without a project they say is critical to moving goods out of the region, The Press-Enterprise reports.

The California Transportation Commission voted March 24 to reject an agreement between Union Pacific, BNSF and regional transportation officials to fund the $197-million Colton Crossing grade separation where the two railroads' tracks meet. The railroads have said the crossing, south of Interstate 10 and west of La Cadena Drive, is the cause of pollution and traffic backups, as trains wait for other railroad cars to pass.

But the state commission said it didn't think the public was getting enough benefit from the project, set to receive $97.3 million in state bond proceeds and $33.8 million in federal stimulus money. In order to receive the money, the railroads and transportation officials in the Los Angeles area -- including Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- must agree the public gets some benefit.

The state money is part of the Prop. 1B transportation bond voters approved in 2006, while the federal share is from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants awarded last month.

Railroad officials said they were disappointed by the decision and would discuss the crossing with Southern California officials. Those discussions must happen before the next commission meetings on April 7 and 8. But discussions in the past "were not fruitful," said Scott Moore, vice president of public affairs for Union Pacific.

"Now if we can't come to agreement, Southern California loses its TIGER money," Moore said. Without the state share, the TIGER money returns to Washington.

"We are concerned we are reaching or going toward a situation where Colton does not happen," Moore said. "And millions of dollars are lost for Southern California."

If no agreement is reached, the Prop. 1B funds will remain in Southern California, but officials noted there is no guarantee they'll stay in the Inland area.

Railroad officials agreed with San Bernardino Associated Governments to help fund nearby overpasses to help separate roads from train tracks. If the Colton Crossing doesn't proceed, that deal is also ended, Moore said.

Ending the SANBAG agreement could make putting carpool lanes on Interstate 215 pricier. Millions of dollars would be saved if Union Pacific abandoned a bridge atop the I-215, rather than force officials to widen it, SANBAG director of freeway construction Garry Cohoe said last week.

The next two weeks will be a flurry of negotiations to see if the railroads are willing to increase the public benefit for the project, local officials said.

One of the things local leaders would like to see is more access to tracks owned by the railroads for Metrolink commuter trains, said Aaron Hake, legislative director for the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

Moore said it was too early to say whether the discussions would save the project, but local officials were less pessimistic.

"I'm going to spend the next two weeks doing everything I can to resuscitate it," said Deborah Barmack, executive director of SANBAG. She said too much money is at stake for the Colton area to not fight for the project. "This is a good project. We just all need to come together and work to make it happen."