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Protest Threatens to Delay Saticoy Bridge Project : Roads: Southern Pacific cites safety concerns about a new railroad crossing needed with the realignment of California 118.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Construction of a new Saticoy bridge along California 118 could be delayed up to 18 months because of a protest recently lodged by the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. over a new railroad crossing planned as part of the project, county officials said Monday.

The cost of the project--scheduled to break ground in April--has jumped from $24 million to $32 million over the past year, and further delay would drive up the price even more, said Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

Worse still, commuters would have to endure traffic congestion on the aging bridge and connecting road for much longer, she said. Once construction begins, the project will take two years to complete, Caltrans officials said.

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About 24,000 vehicles a day now cross the 41-year-old, two-lane bridge, California Department of Transportation officials said. An average of about 2,200 vehicles cross it at peak rush hours, often causing major traffic tie-ups along the highway, officials said.

Gherardi said transportation officials first proposed construction of a new four-lane bridge about 10 years ago.

“After all we’ve been through, I’d hate to see something like this happen,” she said of a possible delay for the project. “We’ll pursue this as aggressively as we can.”

Southern Pacific has said it has safety concerns about the new railroad crossing that would be necessary with the realignment of California 118. The realignment is necessary to accommodate the new bridge, which is to be built about 400 feet south of the existing structure.

The railroad company complained to Ventura city officials and the Public Utilities Commission earlier this month that there should not be an additional railroad crossing unless the old one is closed to vehicle traffic, Gherardi said. The utilities commission will ultimately decide if the project will go forward as planned.

To have two railroad crossings so close to each other would create a significant safety hazard to commuters crossing the tracks, Southern Pacific has contended.

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Company officials were unavailable for comment Monday.

But Christopher Stephens, senior planner for the transportation commission, said the two railroad crossings would not be hazardous because the Southern Pacific-owned tracks are seldom used. He said only one railroad company now uses the tracks for a single round trip a week.

“We’re not talking heavy traffic,” he said. “Our feeling is that it isn’t going to be a real major safety problem.”

Stephens said closing the existing railroad crossing would result in the closing of the existing highway that runs through Saticoy. The existing roadway must be kept open once California 118 is realigned, he said, so that traffic circulation in Saticoy will not be disrupted. If the roadway is closed, businesses along the existing highway will suffer, he said.

An investigation of Southern Pacific’s safety concerns would require reopening the environmental review process for the entire project, Stephens said. Caltrans was planning to seek bids for construction of the new bridge in February, with groundbreaking expected in April, officials said.

Stephens said reopening the environmental review process could delay the bridge project by up to a year and a half.

“To ask for a change at this point in time, at least from the standpoint of the city (of Ventura) and the county, is unacceptable,” he said.

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Stephens said Southern Pacific had an opportunity to protest the new railroad crossing before the environmental impact report on the project was finalized a year ago.

Bill Baranowski, a traffic engineer for the city of Ventura, agreed. “We can’t fathom why Southern Pacific didn’t make a big stink before,” he said. “It seems somebody was really asleep at the wheel.”

Caltrans is expected to submit an application for the new crossing to the PUC within the next few weeks. Once this occurs, there will be a 30-day public review period when Southern Pacific and anyone else can protest the application.

County officials said they hope to get started on the bridge and highway project as soon as possible.

The county transportation commission is scheduled to discuss Southern Pacific’s concerns about the project at its meeting on Friday.

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