LA MIRADA — Mayor Lou Piltz is all shook up.
Every day he crosses several crumbling rail crossings on his way to work. And every day he promises that the railroads will pay.
Piltz believes the railroads have failed to maintain 21 rail crossings in the city. As a result, he said, the city's 41,000 residents and countless others who work, shop or pass through La Mirada every day unnecessarily bounce across the decaying crossings.
"How long can an automobile--or, for that matter a human being--take that kind of pounding?" said Piltz, who works for a supermarket chain in Orange County and passes over several of the crossings on his daily commute.
"I'm not saying somebody will get killed," the mayor said, "but those crossings do damage vehicles, and who knows, they might cause an accident. It's high time the railroads owned up to their responsibility."
Railroad officials, however, disagree.
Both Southern Pacific Railroad and Santa Fe Railway lines running through the city.
Officials of the two rail lines have said they will repair or improve any rail crossing if the city purchases and delivers the materials. Under guidelines set down by the state Public Utilities Commission more than a decade ago, cities and counties buy the materials and railroads install them.
In recent weeks, Santa Fe has even indicated it would purchase asphalt and wood planks to make the repairs.
But the council is not satisfied. Piltz said the city wants the railroads to pay for and install smooth-riding rubberized track crossings on city streets. They last longer and are cheaper to maintain than asphalt and wood plank crossings, said Don White, the city's administrative analyst. The pads also cost roughly three times more than asphalt and wood planks.
"The wood and asphalt is like applying a Band-Aid to the problem," White said. "Two years from now we'll be going back to the railroads asking for more repairs."
Other Cities Involved
La Mirada is not the only California city attempting to persuade the railroads to pay a bigger share of rail crossing improvements.
The City of San Diego has been in a yearlong tug of war with Santa Fe-Southern Pacific Corp. over who will pay for rubberized pads at nearly half the 50 railroad crossings in the city.
Assemblyman Bill Bradley (R-San Marcos) even introduced a bill to force railroads to pay a bigger share of grade crossing improvements. Although the bill was recently dropped in an attempt to settle the city's dispute with the rail lines, San Diego officials said they may push similar legislation next year if current negotiations fail to win greater support from the railroads.
Dwight Stenbakken, the league's legislative analyst, said rail crossings are a universal problem in California.
"There is constant friction between cities and the railroads, largely because neither can agree on when a crossing is dangerous and in need of work," Stenbakken said. "As long as there have been railroads this debate has raged."
In La Mirada, the cost of installing the longer-wearing rubberized pads at the 21 rail crossings would be an estimated $280,000, a city report says. City officials said they have not ruled out a lawsuit to force the railroads to pay for the repairs.
"There's no way we would allow our streets to deteriorate to this point," Piltz said, "so why should we allow the railroads to get away with not repairing those crossings?"
21 Problem Crossings
In a report to the La Mirada City Council last summer, the staff said the 21 rail crossings with problems included eight on major streets--three on Valley View Avenue, two on Alondra Boulevard and three on Artesia Boulevard. The rest cross smaller streets and are on spur lines, mostly into small commercial or industrial complexes.
Repair costs for crossings on major streets run from $15,395 for a Southern Pacific crossing at Artesia Boulevard west of Coyote Creek to $58,600 for Alondra Boulevard west of Phoebe Street.
Frustrated by the railroads' position not to finance major crossing improvements, La Mirada officials persuaded the 441-member California League of Cities in October to adopt a resolution urging the Public Utilities Commission to require the rail lines to regularly maintain and improve all rail crossings. So far, the PUC has not formally responded to group's request.
At the same time, the league is establishing criteria by which the PUC or any state agency can determine whether a rail crossing is a hazard and should be repaired.
"Right now, the PUC normally acts only after an accident occurs," said Victoria Clark, communications director for the league. "That's too late. We need to move more quickly."
Kent Gale, public projects engineer with Southern Pacific, said the railroad generally waits to inspect crossings until it receives a complaint from a city. If the railroad agrees that repairs are needed, he said, the work is usually completed within a month or two. He added that a decline in rail business in recent years has forced Southern Pacific to lay off a number of workers, somewhat hampering efforts to answer complaints.
La Mirada officials want to install padded crossings because they are essentially maintenance-free.
Manufacturers of the pads guarantee their products for at least 20 years, Gale said.