Caltrain focuses on rail overpass funding

Caltrain accidents caused by drivers maneuvering around lowered railroad crossing arms or ignoring warning lights could decline if two new funding sources to pay for railroad overpasses are approved.

At least three such accidents have occurred on Caltrain tracks since 2000, killing three people, according to Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg. In January, Jacqueline Gamboa, 18, died in Gilroy when her boyfriend drove around lowered safety arms and their vehicle was struck by a train. While seriously injured, Gamboa’s boyfriend survived.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Rudy Bermúdez, D-Norwalk, would increase state funding for railroad overpass projects — essentially bridges that separate trains from vehicles at intersections — from $15 million to $70 million annually. The bill has cleared the Assembly and is making its way through the Senate, Bermúdez said.

In addition, Gov. ArnoldSchwarzenegger’s transportation bond, scheduled to go before voters on the November ballot, earmarks $250 million for railroad overpasses, also known as grade separations.

“This is an issue that has long been neglected, not only by the Legislature but by local governments,” Bermúdez said, recalling a derailed train and resulting chemical spill and fire near his home in La Mirada in the early 1970s.

The additional state funding would improve the ability of cities and counties to access federal matching funds, he said. Funding for railroad overpass projects has not been increased since 1972.

“If all this [proposed funding] passes, it would bring in an additional $300 million that Caltrain would be able to compete for against other rail agencies,” Weinberg said. Grade separation projects that could be made possible with the new funding are projects in San Bruno, which is next in line, and Redwood City, Menlo Park, San Mateo, Mountain View and Atherton, which have all expressed interest in grade separations, Weinberg said.

While no statistics are kept by Caltrain, adding grade separations also appears to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths in an area because of the effort required to climb the berm, Weinberg said.

There have been eight pedestrian deaths on Caltrain tracks this year, with fatalities in both San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

Caltrain, which is backing the bill known as AB 1785, sees the grade separations as an added safety feature as well as a way to reduce traffic congestion caused when trains cross at street level, officials said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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