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ARTICLES AND PRESS RELEASES

By Mike Sprague

Whittier Daily News

Feb 25, 2015.



Montebello ends 15-year railroad underpass dispute


A freight train crosses Montebello Boulevard in Montebello on Thursday, February 26, 2015. The Montebello City Council Wednesday made the decision to go through with an underpass at Montebello Boulevard and Maple Avenue as a solution to the Union Pacific train blockage of traffic in South Montebello. (Keith Durflinger / Staff Photographer)

Pedestrians and vehicles cross after a freight train travels over Montebello Boulevard in Montebello on Thursday, February 26, 2015. (Keith Durflinger / Staff Photographer)

MONTEBELLO - The City Council's decision Wednesday to support construction of two railroad underpasses in the southern part of the city appears to have ended a 15-year dispute over how to end traffic congestion on four streets that have railroad crossing arms.

Before about 250 people and a standing-room-only crowd, the council voted 4-1 to support a $142 million plan that includes railroad underpasses at the Union Pacific Railroad and Montebello Boulevard and Maple Avenue.

It also would include a new gate system at Greenwood and Vail avenues that would block drivers and pedestrians from going onto the tracks. That means trains wouldn't have to use their horns, said Juan Diaz, president of JMDiaz, which was hired by the city to provide cost estimates on railroad underpass alternatives.

"This means for the first time in 15 years the City Council has the vision and willingness to address this concern of the community," Mayor Jack Hadjinian said. "People are tired of being severed by a train." Hadjinian said the project could be completed in three years.

Since 1999, city officials and the Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority have disagreed over a way to provide underpasses for the trains. Montebello city officials in 2000 rejected ACE's offer to spend about $90 million to do an underpass for only Montebello Boulevard. Instead, city officials said they wanted the trench to provide overpasses for Montebello Boulevard and Greenwood, Maple and Vail avenues. At the time, the cost was estimated at $360 million.

However, in a study released in 2014, Diaz said the cost of the mile-long trench would be $1 billion.

ACE doesn't have that kind of money, said Mark Christoffels, its chief executive officer.

"We currently have an allotment of about $140 million to complete a project," Christoffels said.

But getting more money is unlikely, he said. If Montebello were to turn it down, ACE would look for another project, he added.

Resident Larry Salazar told the council it would be settling if it didn't seek the mile-long trench alternative.

"I refuse to believe the cost is $1 billion when the current San Gabriel project is about $400 million," Salazar said. "(The trench) is the only option that will result in the lowering of all of the tracks and open our streets to free-flowing traffic."

Diaz blamed the increased estimate to a change in policy by Union Pacific that requires the purchase of more land for the track and the discovery that a Metrolink station must be moved.

Councilman Bill Molinari, who cast the lone no vote, asked for a 30-day delay to give city staff a chance to further analyze the project. "There's no do-over on this," Molinari said. "We should allow more time to assess the impact (of the underpasses) on business and on traffic." Councilman Art Barajas said there will be more study by ACE and the results will come back to the council when it still could say no.

Christoffels said ACE has not reviewed Diaz's findings to remove any suspicion of its motives. Once the council supported an alternative, study will begin, he added.

Sterling Schubert, principal of Applied Technology Center, which is near the railroad, said the city needs to do something about the railroad tracks. "I got to the school last year and the first thing I noticed was the traffic and train safety as an issue," Schubert said.