Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SoCal Rail Crossing Project Faces Funding Deadline

The next 24 days could be the last stand for plans to correct one of the worst rail bottlenecks in the movement of discretionary cargo from the Southern California ports to points east of the Rockies.

The proposed Colton Crossing project – estimated to cost a total of $202 million – seeks to separate an at-grade Inland Empire intersection of an east-west Union Pacific track and a north-south Burlington Northern Santa Fe track. While mainly a freight route, public transit trains also utilize the BNSF track and Amtrak trains use the UP track.

Several regional and local Southern California transportation agencies, after spending nearly a year trying to come to consensus on how to spend $97 million in state bond money allocated for the Colton Crossing project, face a looming deadline that could see the state funds return to the state capitol.

In what some are calling a potential setback to the project, the California Transportation Commission – the managers of the state transportation bond money – agreed on Thursday to give the various transportation groups involved in the project additional time to come to agreement on whether to support the public investment. The May 7 deadline for using the public funds, however, remains in place.

Concerns have been raised by members of the Southern California Consensus Group – the decision making body for the project comprised of the various transportation groups and the Southern California ports – that the CTC vote could allow the SCCG members to simply argue away their time until the deadline passes.

Members of the SCCG have remained tight-lipped about what stumbling blocks remain to reach a consensus on the project, although at least some members of the group are in agreement. If the various members of the SCCG cannot reach agreement before the deadline, they risk losing not only the $97 million in state bond money approved in April 2008 but also an additional $34 million in federal stimulus money that was approved by Washington, DC, in February of this year. The remaining cost of the project is expected to be covered by the railroads.

More than 100 trains a day cross through the Colton Crossing four-way intersection and trains waiting to cross can sometimes sit idling for hours. Freight and transit rail officials have identified the crossing as one of the most serious rail congestion points in the region – one with national impacts due to the resultant slowing of east-bound freight from the Southern California ports 65 miles to the west.

The Colton Crossing project has generated several controversies since its inception several years ago. Local residents and the railroads have differed on the final configuration of the crossing. Local residents have been urging local officials to design the crossing so that at least one of the tracks is sunk into a below-grade trench, thus minimizing impacts on surrounding areas. The railroads are pushing for the cheaper option that would see a bridge built to carry one track over the other.

In addition, some Inland Empire transportation officials, with their own ideas of where scarce state funds should be spent, have expressed reticence over using taxpayer funds to support what they say is essentially a private infrastructure project.

Supporters of the plan were told by the CTC in March that more public benefit components needed to be included in the project to justify the public money investment. The railroads countered by offering to allow more commuter trains to travel across their tracks and project-supporting SCCG members detailed how have the project could represent up to $700 million over 30 years in potential public benefits to the region.

If the SCCG can come to consensus and submit a memorandum of understanding by May 7, the CTC is expected to vote on the agreement in mid-May.