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Plan to bridge dangerous Metrolink crossing stalled by lack of money

Plan to bridge dangerous Metrolink crossing stalled by lack of money
Artist rendering of a long-planned grade separation at the Rice Avenue crossing in Oxnard, where a Metrolink train hit a pickup truck and trailer. (Ventura County Transportation Co.)

A proposed $30-million to $35-million grade separation project that would have prevented Tuesday's crash of a Metrolink commuter train in Oxnard has been delayed for years by a lack of money, officials said Wednesday.

The planned overpass project, which was first considered 15 to 20 years ago, would eliminate the Rice Avenue rail crossing at East 5th Street, which has been identified as one of the most dangerous rail intersections in California.

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"A $35-million grade separation is no small project for Ventura County," said Darren Kettle, executive director of the county's transportation commission. "The delay is due to a lack of funding -- the Achilles Heel for local transportation projects."

Kettle said environmental reviews and preliminary engineering for the bridge project are underway and should be finished by 2016.

But construction cannot begin until adequate funding can be secured from the state, U.S. government and Union Pacific Railroad, which controls the crossing.

Kettle noted that Ventura County has no sales tax to raise money for transportation projects as Los Angeles and Orange counties do.

"If money were no obstacle and if everything went smoothly," he said, "the engineering could be done in five years and construction could begin two years after that."

The project is important for the region's agricultural business and trucks hauling cargo to and from Port Hueneme. Kettle likened Rice Avenue to Interstate 710, the main portal for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Officials for Union Pacific declined to comment on the project because the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash between a Metrolink train and a pickup truck and trailer that drove onto the tracks via the crossing.

"This is not the first time this has happened," said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Oxnard). "This is a very, very busy intersection because rail and roads are major parts of goods movement out of Port Hueneme."

Robert Comer, a safety consultant in Ohio who has done more than 400 railroad crossing investigations, said he had several concerns about the safety of the Rice Avenue crossing.

Though he could not make any conclusions about the cause of the accident, Comer noted that the crossing had a hump in the middle that might cause vehicles and trailers with low clearances to bottom out.

He said the southbound lanes on Rice Avenue have room for only a couple of cars between the stop sign at 5th Street and the railroad tracks. If vehicles lined up, there is so little space, he said, a big rig or a car could get trapped in the crossing as a train approached.

He also said Rice is a busy street and the tracks are very close to 5th Street, a state route that is heavily traveled by commercial trucks.

In one accident, Kettle said, a big rig's trailer extended into the crossing and was struck by a train, but Kettle said he did not know of any vehicles that had bottomed out on the hump in the crossing.

The rail intersection also does not have barriers to prevent cars and trucks from entering the right-of-way immediately next to the tracks. But Kettle said this has not been a problem.

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