For too many years, officials say, motorists have endured one of the commuting world's most hated phenomena--freight trains of seemingly infinite length chugging dolefully along, clogging miles of intersections in north Orange County.
The logjams may someday disappear from the streets of Placentia and neighboring cities as Orange County transportation officials pursue an ambitious plan to route rail traffic beneath intersections along a 5-mile, 40-foot deep trench. Part of a larger $1.5-billion state initiative to improve rail and traffic flow from downtown Los Angeles to San Bernardino County, the trench plan won preliminary approval recently from the Orange County Transportation Authority.
The Orangethorpe Corridor, as it's called, is considered the first gateway for freight leaving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for the Gulf states and Chicago. Activity along the rail route, which also carries passenger trains, has grown steadily over the last 10 years, owing to increased trade with Pacific Rim nations, officials said. Also, more powerful locomotives are being used to pull much longer chains of boxcars.
The estimated $350-million railway-lowering project would affect Placentia, Anaheim, Fullerton and Yorba Linda. However, Placentia officials have asked to spearhead the plan. One of the nation's primary freight routes, owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, cuts across eleven intersections in a five-mile span in their city and has been a growing source of frustration for years.
At times, trains stretching a mile or more have tied up three or four intersections simultaneously, and slower trains can keep cars waiting at intersections for anywhere between four and 10 minutes.
"It's a really, really big hassle," lamented Doinita Antimie, 35, a Fullerton resident who commutes to Placentia. "They trap you and you can never turn around. It drives everybody crazy."
It's a problem that city officials have come to know firsthand. "If you drive in Placentia you get caught a lot at intersections," said Christopher Becker, Placentia's public works director. "There's no way to avoid them. You don't know when they're coming and they run 24 hours a day."
The delays at intersections have blocked emergency vehicles and caused widespread traffic congestion. Residents also have complained of noise and pollution from idling cars and trucks. Currently, 50 trains a day pass through Placentia. That number is predicted to increase to 100 a day in 10 years and 150 a day in 20 years. At that rate, Becker said, traffic delays will increase 170%.
The so-called depressed railway would run for five miles between Placentia Avenue in Placentia to Kellogg Drive in Anaheim and Yorba Linda. North-south streets will bridge the trench, which will contain three parallel tracks. At a depth of 30 to 40 feet, the trench would also reduce noise and vibration, officials say.
BNSF, the rail line, says it is cooperating with Placentia in the proposal, but that it does have concerns about the trench. Most of all, rail officials are worried that rain would flood the trench.
"If it were to fill up with water and we couldn't run trains through there, it would have an impact on the entire country," said Lena Kent, a company spokeswoman. "That's our main concern. Otherwise, we've pledged our cooperation."
Officials, who say they have designed adequate drainage, will begin environmental planning early next year. In the meantime, local transportation officials are looking to organize funding, and say the federal government will contribute heavily.
Cynthia P. Coad, an Orange County Transportation Authority director and a county supervisor who represents Placentia, has championed the rail separation cause for the last two years. She says the federal government should contribute heavily toward the work.
"People need to realize that these trains are just traveling through," Coad said. "It's not like people in Placentia are getting any benefit from it."
An initial plan to solve the problem involved the construction of overpasses that would allow auto and truck traffic to cross the rail lines. Officials abandoned that idea because it would have required demolishing numerous properties, including a portion of City Hall. Coad said she encouraged officials to pursue the trench solution, because it would not require demolishing nearby buildings or purchases of land.
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Underground Railroad Tracks
Orange County Transportation officials are supporting a plan to lower railroad tracks extending through the cities of Placentia, Fullerton, Anaheim and Yorba Linda to improve the flow of road and freight traffic. Estimated to cost $350 million, the plan would lower tracks from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad into a 40-foot deep trench that runs beneath local roadways. The work is part of the larger, $1.5 billion Alameda Corridor East project, which aims to speed the flow of freight trains from railroad yards east of downtown Los Angeles across the San Gabriel Valley and into San Bernardino County.