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Valley Boulevard bridge unclogs a bottleneck in El Sereno

A new overpass replaces a rail crossing that for decades has brought vehicle traffic to a standstill and delayed emergency responders.

February 02, 2009|Hector Becerra

The rail crossing at Valley Boulevard and Marianna Avenue in L.A.'s El Sereno neighborhood has been an unofficial gateway between the neighborhoods just east of downtown and the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. But for more than 30 years, about the only thing longer than the freight trains rumbling through has been the conga line of residents, firefighters, paramedics and police officers who have grumbled about the trains blocking their way.

Several council members have had to confront the issue over the years: Richard Alatorre, Nick Pacheco and Antonio Villaraigosa, now the mayor. The latest official to take on the problem has been Councilman Jose Huizar, who finally secured $50 million to address the problem. On Tuesday, Huizar, city officials and residents gathered to celebrate the opening of the first phase of a bridge that will eventually eliminate the need for the crossing.

The bridge is open for eastbound traffic heading into Alhambra. The westbound side is expected to open by early next year, when a stretch of Valley Boulevard is elevated to meet with the bridge.

When that work is finished, vehicles will no longer have to drive across the rails at Marianna Avenue. A side benefit is that freight trains will no longer need to blare their horns when they pass through that area. Art, from mosaic works on the sidewalk to sculptures, will be part of the finished bridge. Residents, firefighters and police officers say the crossing has been a source of trouble for years.

Vito Violante, a captain with Los Angeles Fire Department Station 16, said his station on Eastern Avenue has an agreement with a nearby county fire station in case there's an emergency situation "on the other side of the tracks." Both stations will respond, just in case, he said. "Sometimes, we get there at the same time," Violante said. "This bridge truly is a life saver."

LAPD Officer Steve Morales said he has been stopped at the crossing several times on calls to locations just on the other side. When that happens, he's basically stuck because finding an alternative route could take just as long or longer, he said.

"I personally have had to wait 10, 15 minutes for a train to pass when I was on a high-priority Code 3 call," Morales said.

Officer Austin Fernald said that he and a partner once tried to reach a conductor of one train to cite him. Freight trains are only allowed to sit at a crossing without moving for a certain amount of time, he explained. "Just as we were walking up, we're probably about 20 cars away, the guy took off," Fernald said. "Sometimes you have trains coming through, then they stop and back up and they're unhooking there for 10, 15 minutes."

Some residents said they have been waiting as long as 40 years for something to be done. Ofelia Loera, 69, said she remembers when a large fire broke out at a tire yard a few years ago. "It took fire engines about 20 minutes to respond because of the train," she said. "If the train's there, too bad for us."

Luanna Allard, a retired carpenter who worked 34 years at nearby Cal State L.A., said her father was an engineer for Union Pacific. She had uncles who worked for the freight lines, as well as a grandfather, she said. "I'm very pro-railroad," Allard said. "But it was nothing to be sitting there for a train, 10 to 20 minutes. This is something we've been working on for 30 years. We were a thorn in someone's paw. It's a great victory."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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