"We were a little surprised," said Jane Dreher, spokeswoman for San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county's transportation agency. "It wasn't one of our applications."
Caltrans, Union Pacific and BNSF proposed the project for federal funding.
Early design of the project is not finished, and officials are still deciding which alternatives for the railroad underpass or overpass to study.
The Obama administration announced funding for transportation projects, including $33.8 million toward a $198.3 million project aimed at easing congestion at a major railway crossing in Colton. It is the only project awarded money in Southern California.
Among the projects not chosen that had support from local officials was an automatic train braking system that could have eliminated accidents like the 2008 Chatsworth crash that killed 25 and injured 135.
Specifically, the railroad lines where Union Pacific and BNSF tracks cross will be separated with an overpass or underpass. More than 100 trains pass through the crossing each day, and many have to slow or stop to allow other trains to proceed.
The funding comes as part of the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grant Program. The program is a component of President Barack Obama's $787 billion Recovery Act, enacted a year ago Wednesday.
The federal money is in addition to $97.3 million in state money coming to the Colton Crossing, said Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific.
Officials estimate that 50 people -- including engineers, surveyors and those working on issues related to the project's environmental impact -- would be put to work this year, said Richard Nordahl, chief of Caltrans' Office of Goods Movement. The project would employ an estimated 150 workers next year and peak at around 440 in 2012, Nordahl said.
But the public benefit of the Colton Crossing has been debated since the project received state money in 2008 from the Prop. 1B transportation bond voters approved.
"It is seen as a private-sector type of project," said Riverside County Transportation Commission Deputy Director John Standiford.
Hunt said keeping trains moving through Colton will improve air quality by reducing the number of idling engines, and improve freight flows through the area. Union Pacific estimated the efficiency improvements translate to at least a $503-million boost for Southern California businesses. The benefit comes from ending train delays and delays at street crossings where trains stop, Hunt said. The lost time waiting for trains costs drivers and freight haulers gas, as well as leading to health costs in the community.
But a lot of study remains before crews can start fixing the Colton Crossing, said Dreher, the SANBAG spokeswoman.
"It is not as if we are opposed to the money by any means," she said. "But we're still trying to figure out which alternative of the project to choose."
Locally, officials are not optimistic that work can start in 2012, though they are not ruling it out.
Officials Riverside and San Bernardino County selected overpasses around railroad tracks and improvements along Interstate 10 as their preferences. But the Colton project had some local support.
Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, said he talked to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood about the project, lauding the railroad separation's economic and local benefits.
On a priority list of projects compiled by Caltrans, the Colton Crossing was considered a second-tier project. It was ranked 49th among the 83 projects submitted, behind positive train control technology and other projects to separate trains and car traffic.
Earl Seaberg, Caltrans' Recovery Act program manager, said special emphasis was placed on modes of transportation, such as freight rail, that didn't get direct funding in other components of the Recovery Act.
"Of course we'll take anything we can get, and put it to good use," Seaberg said.