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Monday, May 10, 2010

Deadline met, mostly, for Colton Crossing agreement

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San Bernardino County, Calif., transportation officials met a state deadline May 7 to keep a $202-million railroad overpass project on track, according to officials who negotiated the hastily finalized deal, The Press-Enterprise reports.

The Colton Crossing will separate the Union Pacific and BNSF tracks where they cross in a residential neighborhood in Colton, south of Interstate 10. The Union Pacific tracks will be raised via an overpass atop the BNSF line, eliminating a freight bottleneck that has contributed to pollution and led to delays in getting goods moving in and out of Southern California.

More than $125 million in state and federal money is dedicated to the project, but the funding hinges on local agreements submitted Friday to the California Transportation Commission. Those agreements need to demonstrate that drivers and Colton residents are getting something out of the project too, such as more commuter train service and fewer delays at railroad tracks, officials have said.

Though some minor details remain unresolved before everything is a done deal, officials said they are confident they have salvaged a project once thought to be on the verge of collapse after state officials balked at an earlier plan.

"If you ask me my personal opinion, I think we're there," said Garry Cohoe, director of freeway programs for San Bernardino Associated Governments. "I don't see any showstoppers."

Two agreements -- one between the railroads and SANBAG and Colton officials, and the other between transportation officials in Southern California -- are required so state and federal money can flow to the project, which is expected to start construction next year.

Federal officials need, by May 17, an explanation of how the project is funded in order for it to receive $33.8 million in federal stimulus funds. State officials must approve the agreements between the railroads and transportation agencies to award $91 million in state bond funds.

State transportation commissioners meet May 19 and 20 in Sacramento, and can approve the deal after specifics are turned over to federal officials. Commission staff told SANBAG to have all components of the deal to them by Friday so they could be reviewed, said Annette Gilbertson, associate deputy director of the state transportation commission.

SANBAG is still working with transportation officials in Southern California to sign off on the deal. The Southern California Consensus Group, composed of transportation officials in Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties and the San Pedro Bay ports, must approve the Colton Crossing deal as well.

To work with regional transportation officials, the agreement between SANBAG and the railroads includes Union Pacific ceding ownership of some land in Los Angeles County, where a subway extension is planned.

A signed letter from the consensus group isn't expected until next week, Cohoe said. He said state officials gave the consensus group until May 14 to deliver the signed agreement.

Gilbertson said she was unaware of any extension of the deadline. Officials were expecting all of the documents -- including the consensus letter - May 7.

No one wanted to see the project killed, said many involved in the process, but for years state and local officials have questioned how much the railroad overpass would benefit drivers. The state transportation commission in March rejected an earlier attempt at a deal, saying the public wasn't getting enough bang for its significant bucks. The commission told local and railroad officials to find a way to add enticements for drivers and residents.

A key component was getting the railroads to allow for more Metrolink commuter train service along Union Pacific and BNSF tracks, said John Standiford, deputy director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

The railroads and San Bernardino agreed to a series of improvements near the Colton Crossing to reduce vehicle delays at train tracks and to build a quiet zone where the trains do not have to blow their horns.

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