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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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