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Third-Track Plan Touted as Freight-Friendly

Caltrans and Metrolink rail proposals would traverse Orange County and connect L.A.'s Alameda Corridor to the Inland Empire.

June 30, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Facing a potential doubling of passengers and freight by 2025, Caltrans and Metrolink plan to build a third track along a busy rail corridor through northern Orange County that serves as a gateway for the nation's largest harbor complex.

Metrolink, the region's commuter rail service, is seeking federal support for a $160-million project to add a third track along 30 miles of the corridor from Anaheim Canyon to Riverside.

Meanwhile, the rail division of Caltrans is proceeding with similar plans to add 15 miles of a third track between Commerce and Fullerton. The proposal has an estimated cost of $85 million.

"Three things are in play: passengers, domestic trade and international trade," said Wally Baker, a senior vice president for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., which has studied the regional transportation system. "If we don't fix this, more trucks and cars will fill the freeways. Cargo has to get out of here someway."

The 64-mile route is one of two main corridors that connect the fast-growing ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to markets in the Midwest, Gulf states, and the East Coast. It is primarily traveled by Metrolink and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

From Los Angeles, the line heads through Buena Park, Fullerton, Placentia, Yorba Linda and Riverside before ending at a major rail junction in Colton. The line is mostly doubled tracked with areas with three tracks.

The other gateway -- the Union Pacific Railroad right of way -- starts in downtown Los Angeles and runs east through central Los Angeles County before reaching Colton.

Both lines are tied to the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile toll road for freight trains between rail yards near downtown Los Angeles and the bustling harbor, where cargo from Pacific Rim trade is growing at 6% or more a year.

Data from the Economic Development Corp. shows that 46 passenger trains and 50 freight trains now use the western half of the northern Orange County corridor a day.

The route's eastern leg, from Fullerton to Riverside, handles 17 passenger trains and 57 freight trains.

Projections indicate that the number of passenger and freight trains will more than double along the Orange County corridor by 2025. About 220 passenger and freight trains a day will travel the western portion, while 183 trains will use the eastern half.

Because passengers and freight now share some tracks, rail officials say, there are potential safety risks and delays for cargo, commuters and train crews.

"We will not be able to handle the growth as currently tracked," said Anne Louise Rice, a government affairs manager for Metrolink. "The route has always been identified as an area for expansion, but the plans have become more important in the last three to five years."

Metrolink is taking the first steps toward obtaining $79 million in federal funds for the project, Rice said. The rest of the money will come from a 50% match by the commuter line. If federal funds are secured, the project could be completed by 2007.

Work on the western leg of the route is scheduled to begin this summer, Caltrans officials say. The state has set aside about $22 million for the project. Another $60 million in funding, however, is threatened because of the state's enormous projected budget shortfall.

"This will allow slower-moving freight trains to move to the side, allowing Amtrak or Metrolink trains to pass," said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern and Santa Fe. "Hopefully, trains will get through the area quicker and grade crossing will not be blocked as long for motorists."

The track additions are part of a broader effort to improve safety and travel times along the route. Also underway is a separate $400-million project to build 12 underpasses and overpasses in Anaheim, Fullerton, Placentia, Yorba Linda and on unincorporated county land.

The project's centerpiece is a 5-mile, 40-foot-deep trench in Placentia to lower the railway below street level, allowing motorists to cross the corridor unimpeded. Drivers now wait up to 10 minutes at rail crossings while freight trains stretching a mile or more slowly make their way along the route.

A government agency called the Orange North-American Trade Rail Access Authority is making the improvements. Officials say the first three crossings will be completed in the next four years at an estimated cost of $40 million.

Construction of the first project, an underpass at Melrose Street in Placentia, began last fall. A second underpass at nearby Placentia Avenue has received environmental clearances.

Transit authority officials were in Washington, D.C., last week lobbying for $200 million in federal funds and speaking to a House railroad subcommittee.

They urged representatives to set high priorities for "mega" transportation projects with significant economic impacts or involve the movement of freight.

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