In the first major expansion of the Metrolink commuter railroad since 1994, local, state and federal officials on Friday dedicated a new passenger route between Riverside and Perris, although construction has not been completed.
Train service will not begin until early next year so the stations can be finished. A specific date has not yet been set.
The $248-million project extends Metrolink's 91 Line about 24 miles and adds stations in north Riverside, Moreno Valley, downtown Perris and south Perris.
"We're excited about the addition and looking forward to getting it open," said Art Leahy, the railroad's chief executive. "There will be some delay, but it won't be long."
Metrolink, which has an average of about 42,700 boardings each weekday, serves Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The Perris extension will increase the line's track from 512 to 536 miles and the number of stations to 59.
The system was last expanded 21 years ago with the opening of the Antelope Valley Line from Lancaster to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. When trains start running on the new extension, commuters will be able to go from Perris to Los Angeles on the 91 Line.
Officials predict that the new track will ease traffic congestion on the area's highways and improve transit options for residents who have some of the longest commutes in Southern California.
The Perris to Riverside route is projected to carry about 4,350 boardings on weekdays, potentially eliminating thousands of vehicle trips on Interstates 215 and 15 and State Routes 60 and 91. Metrolink estimates that about three-fourths of its riders are commuters who have decided to take the train instead of their cars.
"This extension will make a big difference in the quality of life for residents who want an alternative to sitting in traffic," said Therese McMillan, acting head of the Federal Transit Administration, which provided $75 million for the project. "It also lays a strong foundation for economic development along the corridor."
The new route uses an old freight right of way that was purchased in 1993 by the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which planned the December dedication even though the line was not finished.
The improvements include adding a second track along 10 miles of the route and safety enhancements to grade crossings, such as new gates, raised center dividers, flashing warning devices and pavement markings.
Pedestrian crosswalks were installed at two grade crossings. Three other grade crossings — Poarch and Gernert roads in Riverside and 6th Street in Perris — will be closed permanently to traffic, except for emergency vehicles.
In addition, sound walls were added in some neighborhoods and "quiet zones" are being set up in Riverside. Trains entering such areas are prohibited from sounding horns except in emergencies or as required by federal regulations.
At the terminus of the line in south Perris, a 700-space park-and-ride facility will serve communities as far south as Temecula, officials say. Transit buses also will connect to the new stations.
Planning for the expansion began about 11 years ago, but the recession and a lawsuit filed by the Friends of Riverside's Hills, an environmental group, delayed the start of construction until two years ago.
The lawsuit was settled in July 2013 with requirements to increase the soundproofing of homes near UC Riverside, the preservation of wildlife habitat and funding for recreational trails in Riverside County's Box Springs Mountain Reserve.
In addition to the transit administration grant, funding for the project has come from the state, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Measure A, Riverside County's special sales tax for transportation projects.