Calif. wants federal aid for rail freight project

Calif. wants federal aid for rail freight project

A Southern California transport official hailed the approval of two rail-safety amendments by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, but called on Washington to help fund projects that would upgrade crowded rail infrastructure for international cargo heading out of the region's ports.

The committee on Thursday voted to pass two amendments by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The first would require the Department of Transportation to write regulations to ensure that local police and fire officials are notified immediately should there be a runaway train in their community.

The amendment comes after a Union Pacific runaway derailed in Commerce, Calif. in June. There were no injuries in that incident.

Another Boxer amendment authorizes the DOT to study delays to emergency responders caused by trains blocking grade crossings.

While the Boxer amendments address safety concerns, the profusion of grade crossings in Southern California also causes significant delays to freights trains hauling shipments out of the region's ports.

"Freight train delays alone will increase from the current 31.9 minutes per day at the five-mile, Burlington Northern Santa Fe bottleneck in Placentia to more than three hours. Extended conditions will delay some trains from four to six hours," said Chris Becker, chief operating officer of Orange North-American Trade Rail Access Corridor Authority, or OnTrac, a 5-mile long railroad-lowering project that will completely grade-separate 11 rail crossings in the cities of Placentia and Anaheim.

"Construction of the OnTrac project will at least maintain delays at 26.1-minute average per daily train. After 2025 we expect to see a train every 8 minutes 24 hours a day and seven days a week on the corridors," Becker said.

OnTrac, which has been modeled on the Alameda Corridor project that eliminated grade crossings for stack trains out of the Ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach, wants Congress to help fund the project. "Southern California's gateways are the entry way for so much of what moves the U.S. economy, and what fuels our modern way of living, but less known are the impacts of these gateways, and the related rail corridors in sending products overseas," said Becker. Becker said that "the combined impact of trade through the region's system is impressive: four states alone - Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas - trade a total of more than $50 billion worth of international goods through Southern California ports and rail trade corridor network."

OnTrac is estimated to cost approximately $400 million, $45 million of which has already been raised among the Orange County Transportation Authority, State of California, and City of Placentia. OnTrac is asking for $200 million in the reauthorization of TEA-21, Becker said.

OnTrac is urging Congress to establish a new section of the Federal-aid Highway Program to fund goods movement projects of national economic significance.

"Although a majority of freight moves domestically, international trade amounts to almost 27 percent of the GDP of the U.S.," said Becker. "By the year 2020, even at moderate rates of economic growth, the total domestic tonnage of freight carried by our intermodal system including freight rail, will increase by over 60 percent, while at the same time international trade will nearly double.