Friday, April 30, 2010

Millions of dollars at stake as Colton Crossing deal remains unresolved

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Millions of dollars at stake as Colton Crossing deal remains unresolved | Railway Track & Structures

Southern California officials have one week to come to agreement on the public benefits of a planned railroad overpass in Colton, or risk losing $125 million for the Inland area, The Press-Enterprise reports. To quell concerns from coastal counties, San Bernardino County officials have offered to pull their request for state bond money for a massive interchange overhaul proposed near Devore. Officials said they will find money elsewhere to reconfigure the Interstate 215 and Interstate 15 convergence.

An agreement between transportation officials in the region, Union Pacific and BNSF must be in the hands of state officials by May 7 spelling out how the Colton Crossing will be built and paid for. Plans call for the east-west Union Pacific tracks to be raised above the north-south BNSF line.

The $202-million project would alleviate a railroad bottleneck that delays freight moving in and out of the area. Construction is expected to start later next year if the project's funding is finalized, Union Pacific spokesman Scott Moore said earlier this month.

State and local officials have struggled to put together a deal with the railroads that demonstrates enough benefit for local drivers and residents to warrant $125 million in state and federal funds. Earlier proposals were criticized because they benefited the freight railroads more than the public, despite governments footing most of the cost.

The bulk of the public money, $91.3 million, comes from Prop. 1B, the transportation bond voters approved in 2006.

The California Transportation Commission denied a request for the money in March, and left the decision up to the Southern California Consensus Group -- transportation officials in Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, as well as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The consensus group must come to agreement on the project in order to receive state transportation commission approval.

The remainder of the public funding comes from $33.8 million in federal stimulus dollars.

But the state and federal funds come with a web of strings attached. The state won't hand over the money without the federal funds, but the federal funds aren't available until the state agrees to the plans for the overpass.

Regional officials face three deadlines to keep the project alive. They must have an agreement signed by the consensus group to the state transportation commission by May 7, so state officials can forward it on to the federal officials holding the stimulus purse strings by May 17.

Finally, the state commission must approve the local deal when it meets May 18. Missing any of the deadlines leaves the project in jeopardy of losing millions of dollars, potentially shelving it for years.

Untying the bureaucracy necessary to untie the railroad tracks remains the responsibility of San Bernardino transportation officials.

San Bernardino officials have tweaked the agreement into something they think can work, they said. A separate deal between the railroads, SANBAG and Colton city officials outlines a planned underpass at Laurel Avenue and improvements that will allow trains to proceed through the city without blowing their horns.

In the last two weeks, San Bernardino transportation officials also agreed to pull the Devore interchange from the list of projects included in the state bond program. Some Southern California officials worried that not enough money would be available in the bond package for their projects if both of the large San Bernardino County projects were included.

Union Pacific, which is contributing about $60 million to the Colton Crossing project, has agreed to a number of concessions including additional passenger-train access to the tracks, and will study the feasibility of opening space on the tracks for Metrolink trains to travel to the Coachella Valley. The freight railroads control much of Southern California's passenger train movement because they own the tracks and allow the trains to operate on the lines around their own business needs.

Riverside County Transportation Commission officials asked for the Union Pacific study because board members from the desert have sought commuter train service, said deputy director John Standiford.

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