San Gabriel: They Hear the Trains a-Comin'

Staff Reporter

The $2.4 billion, 20-mile Alameda Corridor project connecting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with the rail yards near downtown is supposed to make life easier for commuters and shippers alike.

But for hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents in the San Gabriel Valley, this week's opening is being viewed with dread.

As more and longer trains use the Alameda Corridor, most will transfer to already crowded rail lines crossing the San Gabriel Valley on the way to the huge rail yards in the Inland Empire. That will increase delays for vehicles at 50 grade crossings, stretching from East Los Angeles to Pomona.

The long-promised relief for these residents and businesses a massive grade-separation project known as Alameda Corridor East is years behind schedule. The first handful of grade separations of this $900 million project won't be completed until 2005, at the earliest.

"We're not looking forward to the opening of the Alameda Corridor at all," said Gary Erb, vice president and general manager of Admiral Transportation Co., a distribution firm in the City of Industry. "It means more delays and longer delays for our truck drivers, and that will adversely affect our business."

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

As plans were being finalized for the Alameda Corridor in the mid-1990s, concerned government officials from the dozen San Gabriel Valley cities along the north and south spurs of the Union Pacific Railroad lines got together in an effort to reduce the number of street-level crossings. The idea was to have the grade separations completed shortly after the opening of the Alameda Corridor, to minimize the impact of increased train traffic.

But the only way to eliminate a street-level rail crossing is to have the street go over or under the rail line, which can cost anywhere from $10 million to $40 million, depending on the street layout. The resulting plan was intended to tackle at least half of the grade crossings.

Use of existing funds

But it was decided not to raise taxes or sell bonds to fund the project; only existing funds would be used. While more politically palatable for the cities, this forced the project to compete with scores of other transportation projects across the state and nation. It also forced a scaling back of the plan, to just 20 grade crossings in two phases.

"We quickly found out there were virtually no existing funds for grade crossing improvements," said Rick Richmond, chief executive of the Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority, the entity formed in 1998 to build the project. "That meant we had to fight with people who wanted freeway widenings, subway dollars and other projects to get our funding."

The Authority got off to a good start, quickly securing $135 million in federal funding. But it took three more years to cobble together another $260 million.

With most of the $410 million first phase finally funded, the Authority has contracted out engineering work for the nine grade crossings in the phase. But construction won't begin until the end of 2003 and won't be completed until late 2005 or early 2006, nearly four years from this week's Alameda Corridor opening.

The $480 million second phase doesn't yet have any funding. Construction work on the nine grade crossings in that phase won't begin until 2005, at the earliest. (The City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles are funding the remaining two grade separations.)

"I won't deny we're in a catch-up mode here," Richmond said. "The issue for us has always been the money."

In the meantime, businesses and residents that must use the grade crossings face ever-increasing delays. And the Alameda Corridor is widely expected to exacerbate the situation in two ways.

First, it will enable faster transportation to the downtown terminus by improving dockside loading times and consolidated rail lines. This will allow for more frequent trains as cargo volumes increase at the ports.

Second, because of the configuration of the new tracks, rail companies will be able to assemble longer trains. Currently, most freight trains leaving the port are about 5,000 feet long; the new tracks will allow for trains of up to 8,000 feet.

While this is all great news for shippers and the rail lines, it's bad news for those caught at grade crossings in the San Gabriel Valley.

"This is the greatest concern, that grade crossings will be impassable for more of each day," said Barry Sedlik, chief executive of the World Trade Center Association of Los Angeles-Long Beach. "This of course was one of the key problems that prompted the building of the Alameda Corridor in the first place. Now, what you've done here is basically move a lump in this rug further east."

Non-stop gridlock

At some grade crossings, the situation is already approaching critical, especially in the City of Industry, where the two Union Pacific lines nearly converge. At the Fullerton Road crossing, for example, there are times during rush hour when the back-up from one train crossing can't totally clear before the next train comes along.

"It's a real disaster zone out there when that happens," said Don Sachs, executive director of the Industry Manufacturers Council.

Regular drivers through the area know to try to use the north-south streets that are already grade-separated, like Azusa Avenue. But even that has its problems.

"Have you ever tried taking Azusa Avenue at rush hour? There's so much traffic both on Azusa and on the east-west streets just getting to and from there that you probably waste more time with that detour," said Gene Dahlin, co-owner of ELA Corp., a lighting firm in the City of Industry. "It's just going to be much harder to make our deliveries and receive our shipments."

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