Grade Separation Projects a High Priority

By RailPAC President Paul Dyson — I’m writing this on 24th of February on a typical news day; an attack on a Saudi Refinery, controversy over a toll road route through a state park, and Burbank is the sixth sootiest city in the US. Everyday there are reminders of the wrong direction of our transportation priorities. Everyday there seem to be new battles to fight, all too many of them re-argued actions against the paving over of more of California.

With so much to do and limited resources, where should RailPAC concentrate its energy, and get the best return on investment of our time? We are after all a volunteer group and rely on you, our members, to write letters and e-mails, to educate and persuade. I believe there are a few critical areas where, if we concentrate our resources, we can have some real impact in the coming months. Here are my thoughts on one of them: Grade Separation Funding.

At first glance this may seem to be one of those important but subsidiary topics. Yes, we believe in separating rail from road at busy intersections, but this is not our primary campaign. Why then do I think it’s a critical issue? Take a look at one current “passenger rail” investment and I think you’ll see why.

LOSSAN Projects: Los Angeles to Fullerton Third Main Track. The LOSSAN project list includes the provision of a third main track between Hobart Yard and Fullerton to accommodate the growing number of commuter, intercity and freight trains on that route: so far so good. In November of 2005 this project was budgeted at $383 million. But where exactly is this money going and who are the beneficiaries? Of the total $383 millions, no less than $257 millions will be spent on 4 grade separation projects! These are needed under today’s highway and traffic volumes, and will be essential when the third track is in place. But the benefits are spread well beyond rail passengers. My list includes:

  1. Automobile Users. Significant time and fuel savings for motorists at these crossing.
  2. Bus Users. A number of bus routes use the crossings in question. Delays will be eliminated, making the service more reliable and attractive to riders, and reducing operating costs and fuel consumption.
  3. Public Safety: Other than the Glendale terrorist act (deliberate derailment of a passenger train) the majority of fatalities and injuries at grade crossings are incurred by motorists and pedestrians.
  4. Air Quality: The whole community benefits from the elimination of idling of diesel and gasoline engines for long periods at grade crossings.
  5. Rail Passengers: Some improvement to safety and reduction of delays due to automobile or pedestrian accidents.
  6. Freight Railroads: Greater safety and fewer delays.

As you can see the benefits of grade separation projects are widespread, and to some degree benefit all members of society. We should also be aware that rail critics use the total cost of “rail” projects as a propaganda weapon against us, citing what they believe is a poor “rate of return”. By instituting a fairer system of funding for grade separations we end up with a truer cost of rail infrastructure improvements and a better understanding of the benefits of rail passenger expansion on a comparative cost basis.

On the anniversary of the Glendale wreck Representative Dario Frommer has proposed a $500 million bond issue to be devoted to grade separations. While this is a positive step in acknowledging the lack of past funding for this need it doesn’t address my concerns outlined above, namely that will represent more money spent on “rail” without recognizing that this is a multi-faceted issue.

It seems to me that the funding should not come exclusively from rail budgets but also from highways, air quality and public safety funds. We need an entirely new funding mechanism that acknowledges the multiple benefits of grade separations. We need a consistent source of money that will remove a large percentage of the busiest crossings over the next ten years. The “Grade Separation Trust Fund” will receive contributions from Highway, Rail, Air Quality, Homeland Security and local sources and be administered and distributed by Caltrans based on a risk assessment formula. I’d suggest a 20% contribution from passenger rail.

I hope that RailPAC members will take up this cause. In the case of the LOSSAN triple track project, if this formula existed, the “passenger rail” cost of this upgrade would be more like $125 million instead of $383 million. That would leave us with an additional $257 million to invest in other projects. Imagine the impact of this throughout the state. This is definitely a battle worth fighting.

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