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Friday, April 09, 2010

More time allowed to win state approval for Colton Crossing upgrade

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An 11th-hour clarification in when federal officials need an approved agreement on the Colton , Calif., Crossing railroad overpass has given local and train industry officials four more weeks to work out the details, The Press-Enterprise reports.

The delay, approved cautiously by the California Transportation Commission, could help put the finishing touches on the deal, which was only sketched out in the past two days.

"We thought we had come to agreement," said Scott Moore, vice president of public affairs for Union Pacific. The company and BNSF Railway are proposing the railroad overpass that would raise the Union Pacific's east-west tracks above the BNSF's north-south line where they cross in Colton.

But members of the Southern California consensus group, made up of transportation agencies and others such as the San Pedro Bay ports, still must sign off on a formal agreement.

Officials only learned they had more time when state transportation staff received word from federal transportation officials that they could present a plan, and then approve it at the state commission's next meeting May 19. Federal officials who will allot $33.8 million in federal stimulus funds to the project must have an agreement by May 17, said Bimla Rhinehart, executive director of the state commission.

Members warned they expect to have a written agreement by May 7 so it can be checked and submitted to federal officials 10 days later.

"That is the way it is, and we are not going to change that," said transportation commission chairman Jim Earp, of Sacramento. "There is no more room after this. There really, really isn't any more room after this."

Others chided local officials and the railroads for haggling in the last three weeks and in the months and years before, when Colton Crossing was on the drawing board.

"Why do we have to wait until the last minute to get this together," transportation commissioner Larry Zarian, of Glendale, asked. "You have a bunch of good people who mean well. ... But this could have been done some time ago.

Only after that can the project receive $91 million in state funds as part of the Prop. 1B transportation bond voters passed in 2006. The railroads originally requested $97.3 million but agreed to the reduction as part of the ongoing talks regarding the project.

The talks have made progress from where railroad and local officials began last month, said Deborah Barmack, executive director of San Bernardino Associated Governments. San Bernardino transportation officials are leading the negotiations. But other Southern California agencies must also agree, something Barmack said will be the challenge in the coming weeks. Buy-in from Los Angeles city and county officials, as well as Orange County interests, is necessary so the state commission senses regional cooperation, officials said.

Some issues to assuage regional fears remain but are within reach, said Will Kempton, director of the Orange County Transportation Authority. He said Southern California officials want to see more details on how the railroads will contribute to installing safety features on area train tracks, such as positive train control technology that avoids head-on collisions, exactly how any cost overruns on the $202-million project will be paid for, and the timing of when Colton Crossing's construction will need the state money.

Because the state's bond program has more commitments than money, local officials are scrambling to schedule when certain projects will seek state money to start work. Projects that can start soon will proceed, while those that can wait for more funds to buoy state coffers can hold off on drawing money.

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