American Shipper

Work on Colton Crossing rail project study to restart

Work on Colton Crossing rail project study to restart

Preparatory work has restarted on a $300 million project to unclog one on the Inland Empire's worst rail bottlenecks, despite no firm funding commitments from state, county or railroad officials.

   The state-funded $3.7 million study will look at preliminary design, engineering and environmental aspects of the Colton Crossing rail project, and is expected to take up to 18 months to complete.

   Work on the study was set to begin last year, but was held up while funding discussion between local government and railroad officials from Union Pacific and BNSF took place. While the funding issues are not resolved, local officials and the railroads agreed last month to move forward with the project study while funding talks continue.

   In April, $97.3 million in voter-approved Proposition 1B transportation bond money was allocated to the project at the urging of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the funds are not guaranteed. State transportation officials are still negotiating with UP and BNSF over the size of the railroads' contributions.

   A proposed statewide container tax, shelved last year by author State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, is reportedly set to move forward in the state legislature by the end of the month and may include funds for the Colton Crossing project.

   Under Lowenthal's SB974 bill, the end user, or beneficial cargo owner, will pay a $30-per-TEU fee on containers moving through the Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland ports. The bill is expected to generate more than $500 million per year for infrastructure and air quality projects related to goods movement.

Colton Crossing seeks to separate an at-grade Inland Empire intersection that sees more than 100 trains a day, many often idling for hours waiting to cross.

   While no details have been released of the itemized project list to be included in the SB974 amendments, Lowenthal Chief of Staff John Casey said in February 'there is nothing in the bill that says that the funds could not be used for the Colton Crossing project.'

   Casey said that because the Lowenthal container fee would be paid by private industry, it is a better funding fit for projects like Colton Crossing than state funds such as the Prop-1B bond funds, approved by voters in 2006.

   The proposed Colton Crossing project seeks to separate an at-grade Inland Empire intersection of an east-west Union Pacific track and a north-south BNSF track. While mainly a freight route, public transit trains also utilize the BNSF rack and Amtrak trains use the UP track.

   More than a 100 trains a day cross through the 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 slowing of freight from the Southern California ports 65 miles to the west.

   The Colton Crossing project has generated several controversies, with local residents and the railroads differing on the how the project should eventually look. Inland Empire transportation officials, with their own ideas of where scarce state funds should be spent, do not want taxpayer funds used to support what they say is essentially a private infrastructure project.

   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.

   BNSF expects to release details of its funding contributions in September as part of a comprehensive set of project agreements. ' Keith Higginbotham