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Saturday, Sep 15 2012 02:00 AM

Heavy freight volume leads to plan to upgrade rail line to Tehachapi

BY ED GORDON Tehachapi News

TEHACHAPI -- A $106.7 million rail improvement project that is winding its way through the approval process would increase freight train traffic through the Tehachapi Pass by about 80 percent by 2020.

The proposal comes against a background of ever-busier freight traffic through the pass. Now rail service in the area is is experiencing worsening congestion.

By 2020, trafic on the existing rail line is expected to reach an average of 50 8,000-foot trains per day, up from the current average of 35 trains per day.

The project consists of five segments north of State Route 58 and State Route 223, running through the towns of Caliente and Keene. Traveling from west to east, the project would add a second rail segment parallel to existing track. This process is called "double tracking." The Tehachapi Loop would not be changed, but additional track would allow more train traffic to move through the area.

Expansion plans under consideration include:

* Construction of an additional track along five rail segments within the Tehachapi Pass area.

* And new and temporary bridge structures.

Rail line neighbors will have a chance to learn more about the project -- and share their thoughts on a the proposal -- at a California Environmental Quality Act public hearing/open house from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 27, at the offices of the Tehachapi Area Association of Realtors, 803 Tucker Rd., Tehachapi.

Other than rail, the only major means of access across the Tehachapi Mountains between the Central Valley and eastern points such as Las Vegas and Phoenix is through State Route 58, a four-lane expressway with traffic controls in many segments. About 30 percent of the traffic on this portion of this expressway is truck traffic. Rapid growth in Bakersfield in recent years has also added traffic and congestion. This trend is expected to continue.

The BNSF Railway plans to partner with the state, providing matching funds to cover the project costs. Half of the construction funding would come from BNSF Railway and the rest from the California Transportation Commission with funds from Transportation Corridor Improvement Fund. In addition to the 50 percent private match, future maintenance of the new rail infrastructure would be privately funded by the railroads.

It is expected that the freight increases from 2010 to 2020 will increase by nearly 80 percent from 7,985 containers to 14,000 containers per day. BNSF Railway made the estimate based on its year-to-year market growth projections, which indicate that additional track capacity is necessary to avoid making an already-congested rail corridor worse.

Although the actual construction will take place west of the City of Tehachapi, the city will be impacted because the project will allow much more train traffic than is currently seen.

"It will increase the number of trains coming through town in frequency but also the length of the trains," said David James, Community Development Director for the city.

"We already have an issue with having very few rail separations (space between crossings) so that's a real public safety concern of ours, as city employees. Trains coming through town, other than maybe visitors who want to stop and take pictures of them, have very little economic impact on us. But, it certainly does impact our quality of life."

Copies of the EIR document as well as the technical studies are available for review at the Caltrans district office at the Kern County Library, Tehachapi Branch at 1001 W. Tehachapi Boulevard, Suite A-400. The document can also be accessed electronically at the following website: www.dot.ca.gov/dist6/

environmental/envdocs/d6

Written comments can be mailed to Bryan Apper, Sr. Environmental Planner, CalTrans, 855 M Street, Suite 200, Fresno, CA 93721, or by email to: bryan_apper@dot.ca.gov. Caltrans will be accepting comments until Friday, Oct. 12.

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