Lack of Funding Delays Bridge to Separate Cars from Trains at Troubled Crossing

In a chilling coincidence, barely 12 hours before the crash, a Ventura County transporation official was making a presentation to members of Congress on the need for the bridge

Long before a Metrolink commuter train collided with a farm truck Tuesday in Oxnard, a solution had been proposed to prevent such collisions: a bridge that would carry auto and truck traffic over the railroad.

A $30-35 million price tag has stood in the way.

"I think the biggest question for us is the matter of funding," said Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

In a chilling coincidence, Monday - barely 12 hours before the collision - Kettle was making a presentation to members of Congress on the need for the Rice Avenue bridge over the railroad. The overcrossing was first proposed more than a decade ago. There is no debate over the potential safety benefits.

The railroad crossing of Rice Avenue just north of Fifth Street has been the site of numerous train-auto collisions over the years. Last June, two young men were killed when their car went through the crossing gates and collided with a train.

In Tuesday's collision, the southbound truck turned short of Fifth Street, and actually drove onto the tracks, straddling the rails. Jose Sanchez Ramirez was confused in the predawn darkness, said his attorney Ron Bamieh, and then was unable to drive off the tracks.

"The safest way is to make sure rail and traffic don't mix," Kettle said.

Safety is only part of the equation. The bridge at Fifth is proposed as part of larger project to improve the Rice transportation corridor that links Port Hueneme with the 101 Freeway. Earlier funds were obtained to improve the junction of Rice with the 101.

"This was the next one in line and clearly will be a priority until we can get the funding." Kettle said.
Another option would be for the owner of the railroad right of way, Union Pacific, to elevate the tracks above road level. A spokesman for Union Pacific declined any comment on the crossing, pending the collision investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In the darkness, Sanchez Ramirez did not see that he was driving onto the railroad, Bamieh said.
In fact, the pavement at that point extends a few feet farther to the side of Rice Avenue, so that after initiating the right turn, an auto initially stays on pavement before dropping onto the cross ties of the railroad. Bamieh also made note of Kettle's Monday meeting with lawmakers.

Whether additional markings or reflectors in the right away might help is within Union Pacific's purview, Kettle said. Again, the Union Pacific spokesman said it's not an appropriate time to comment.

"I expect public agencies would want to explore other options in the short term," Kettle said.

Apart from where Rice crosses the Union Pacific railroad, there are at least 10 other grade crossings across the Oxnard coastal plain, by Kettle's estimate. With difficulty funding one, Kettle sees no time in the foreseeable future when funding would ever be available for the rest.

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