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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Long Road to Safe Crossing

November 09, 2003

It pays to be the squeaky wheel. Two years after the federal government identified California's 10 most dangerous railroad crossings, nine underwent major alterations ranging from newly installed safety arms to underpasses. One crossing was even blocked to vehicle traffic.

No such luck, though, for motorists and pedestrians who continue to dodge trains at the last crossing on Uncle Sam's list. All the McFadden Avenue crossing in Santa Ana got was a new section of sidewalk and two signs warning pedestrians and motorists not to stop on the tracks.

The McFadden crossing fell through a regulatory crack because, unlike other communities, Santa Ana failed to vigorously lobby for improvements at the crossing where two people have died in five accidents since 1995. The state agency that should have been on top of this situation acknowledges as much. The director of the Public Utilities Commission's consumer protection and safety division told Times reporter Jennifer Mena: "I will admit that apparently we lost track of this crossing for a bit."

The admission is the first step toward making things right for the thousands of residents who walk or drive across the McFadden crossing every day. Officials from Santa Ana and Metrolink, which operates passenger service through the city, are discussing whether improved warnings about approaching passenger trains will make the crossing safer. Santa Ana also has hired an engineering consultant to study possible safety improvements at the crossing. The PUC's promise to give the McFadden crossing priority clears the way for the state to funnel federal money through the state Department of Transportation to help fund repairs.

There are intermediate steps that should be taken. The cautionary signs are in English even though the neighborhood is largely Spanish-speaking. Banks and supermarkets use Spanish to communicate with their Latino customers, so why not install Spanish-language signs that could save lives. The heavily populated neighborhood is bisected by tracks carrying as many as 45 trains daily. Residents also must do a better job of stopping, looking and listening carefully before crossing the tracks -- and they must teach their children to do the same.

Tight government budgets mean a permanent solution will be difficult. Several crossings in Santa Ana that draw heavy foot traffic would benefit from pedestrian crossing gates alongside vehicle gates, but it would cost $200,000 for the McFadden crossing alone. And, three years ago, a city study estimated the price of a bridge or underpass at McFadden at about $12 million.

Santa Ana shouldn't view that last option as mission impossible. Fresno officials pushed for a decade before an $18-million underpass was dug beneath a dangerous stretch of track. Being a squeaky wheel costs time and money but it can save lives.

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