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By Chris Levister

Democratic Assembly member Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto) is determined to change the way California doles out road and rail money. With bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers AB 945 authored by Carter passed the Assembly late Tuesday, as the Legislature prepared to adjourn for the year.

The measure would require the California Transportation Commission and Caltrans to assess statewide transportation needs and funding sources every five years beginning on July 1, 2008. The state has no requirement that any state entity appraise overall state transportation needs which makes it hard to allocate funding wisely. 

The newly appointed chair of the Inland Empire Transportation Committee says Californians made the right decision by approving nearly $20 billion in transportation bonds last year, however she says spending billions of dollars of transportation money - $19.9 billion from last year's Prop 1B alone with no real understanding of the overall picture is senseless policy.

"This is the reason why I introduced AB 945, which would provide the information California needs to determine where transportation dollars are needed most," says Carter.

AB-945 puts spotlight on state funding needed to clear congestion at notorious 'Colton crossing' bottleneck where westbound Union Pacific freight trains roll over Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

"California has an obligation to allocate transportation dollars on a more rational basis than political pressure or haphazard planning."

Carter says the bill will spur the state to reshuffle funding priorities for vital infrastructure repairs in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.   

In a recent opinion editorial Carter stopped short of saying the state has all but ignored the Inland Empire's aging dangerously overcrowded, network of highways, railways and surface streets.

 "These priorities should include many vital projects in the Inland Empire, such as the need to ease congestion on the I-10 freeway and our railroads. The elaborate nationwide goods movement network goes right through San Bernardino County's population centers and as rail traffic increases in the next few decades, so will the impact on residents."    

Say "Colton Crossing" to transportation experts as far away as Los Angeles and beyond, and they recognize it as one of the most notorious freight-train bottlenecks in the state.

Yet the rail line intersection of Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Burlington Northern San Fe railroad tracks south of I-10 that holds up mile-long trains carrying goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rest of the nation, has gone from bad to worse while awaiting funding to separate the tracks, this despite having the support of several agencies including the Southern California Association of Governments and the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Plus a willingness by the two railroads to contribute to the estimated $150-250 million cost of the project.

"Right now, we've got freight gridlock here. There's a recognition this project reaches far beyond its geographic location," Carter said.

Trains passing through the junction begin to stop long before they get to the intersection of rail lines in Colton, idling their engines sending plumes of diesel fumes into surrounding neighborhoods and backing up motorists at railroad crossings.

Riverside and San Bernardino county officials who've lobbied for the improvements say rail congestion has reached intolerable levels, cost millions in lost revenue and are now a chief cause for Metrolink commuter line delays.

"If we don't fix this crossing it will be what bottlenecks freight in Southern California," says Darren Kettle, director of freeway construction for San Bernardino Associated Governments, (Sanbag) the county's transportation planning agency

Thanks in large part to self imposed half-cent sales taxes in San Bernardino and Riverside counties there has been a boom in construction work on the regions long overstressed freeways.

While the two-county population exploded from about 2.6 million people in 1990 to 3.9 million in 2005, an increase of nearly 51 percent, funding for road construction didn't come close to keeping up.

For San Bernardino residents the vital project is the widening of I-215 through downtown. The improvements will correct a half century old injustice to the largely Black and Hispanic community on the city's Westside.  Limited by the rail lines and other space constraints, engineers who designed the aging freeway directed critical ramps to the east, steering traffic away from the Westside.

Sanbag is working with the Riverside County Transportation Commission to coordinate improvements on both sides of the county line. In the planning stages is a companion project on I-215 south of I-10 through Colton and Grand Terrace to the border with Riverside County.

Riverside County includes the worst commuter corridor in the Inland region, Highway 91

where a 20 mile rush hour commute can take an hour. Despised by generations of motorists the interchange where Highway 60, Highway 91 and I-215 meet is being completely rebuilt.

Carter says passage of AB-945 will spur the state to fix it's infrastructure starting with the weakest links.

Bipartisan support of AB-945 is viewed as a major victory since Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year saying Californians didn't need another report to tell them about the state's transportation woes. Carter disagrees arguing the estimated $250,000 cost every five years for compiling the needs assessment is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions at stake in transportation decisions.

"Let's take a critical lesson from the Minneapolis bridge tragedy and not wait until it's too late to improve our system."

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