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Colton Crossing rail separation wins federal stimulus funds

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An often-contentious plan to separate railroad tracks in Colton, Calif., is among 51 projects nationwide set to receive millions in federal stimulus funds, although local officials never identified it as a top regional priority, The Press-Enterprise reports.

"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.

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