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The Region

O.C. Rail Plan Gets $14-Million Boost

Federal money will help OnTrac clear its current hurdle, but future funds are in doubt.

March 26, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

A financially strapped railroad project in northern Orange County was approved Wednesday for $14 million in federal funding, enough to pay the rail agency's immediate bills but not nearly enough to ensure that the $450-million project can be built.

The funds were sought by Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar) after he learned about the money troubles faced by OnTrac, a joint-powers agency created by Placentia. The project would construct new crossings at 11 streets and lower tracks into a concrete trench through the city.

OnTrac officials were told earlier this year that the state's budget crisis could result in the loss of $12 million from a $28-million state grant.

The new federal money would allow OnTrac to guarantee a $5.6-million loan requested earlier this month from the Orange County Transportation Authority, as well as cover unpaid bills to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.

Approval by the House Transportation Committee means the money will remain in the transportation bill as it moves for a full House vote and then to a conference committee, Miller said.

"I've been reading about their financial problem, and we've solved it," he said Thursday. "Now we have to fight to get the [entire] project funded."

The bulk of the federal funding request -- $220 million -- will come later this year as Congress approves what are called projects of regional and national significance. The balance of the project's cost will be sought from state and local funds.

Winning support for the rest of the money won't be easy.

"This isn't the only project in the U.S.," he said. "It's going to take a lot of debate and argument, [and] there is no guarantee of funding. If these federal funds don't come through, this project is dead."

OnTrac's financial problems became so acute in recent weeks that eight of the project's private consultants, as well as its executive director, offered to defer half their fees for four months to comply with a City Council edict to reduce expenses.

OnTrac Executive Director Christopher Becker, the city's former public works director, in 2002 earned almost $500,000 a year, making him the highest-paid transportation project chief in the state. His salary was cut last year. He did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

OnTrac board member Scott Brady, also a council member, proposed requiring OnTrac to secure at least $50 million in federal funds before the city adds to the $12 million it already has spent on the project.

Miller said he was satisfied that the agency had cut costs and was reevaluating fees. The agency realized that spending millions of dollars so far on consultants "wasn't the most proper thing to do," he said. The project remains necessary for one of the nation's busiest rail freight corridors, he said. About 50 trains a day use the Orangethorpe corridor through Placentia. That number is expected to increase to 135 by 2020.

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