Desert Corridor Hinges on Funds
By Matt Wrye
Face it: Those enormous diesel trucks you dodge on the freeway aren't going away anytime soon.
But you could be spared from thousands more in coming decades if a high-stakes plan by regional policymakers wins the funding it needs to get started.
Corporate officials from engineering and financial firms from across the United States, Australia, Spain and elsewhere packed 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt's office in San Bernardino last week to ask questions about a proposed 50-mile stretch of asphalt between Palmdale and Highway 395 outside of Victorville.
In December, the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority sent the proposed High Desert corridor expressway out for bid as a public- private partnership. Bids are due mid-March.
Don't get too excited, however. The expressway could take three decades or more to complete.
A rapidly paced construction project versus a slow-going one hinges on whether San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county's transportation agency known as Sanbag, can garner $150 million in Proposition 1B money to kick-start the first phase.
Sanbag has applied for the money, which would come out of the Trade Corridor Improvement Fund. The fund is shared by regional transportation agencies who've been lobbying Sacramento for highway dollars.
That money, with another $150 million to $200 million promised by Victorville, would build a stand-alone section of this highway about four miles long between the Southern California Logistics Airport - an intermodal hub of trains, trucks and planes - and the 15 Freeway.
Building this short link would spur financiers to start laying money down on the entire 50-mile corridor project, stakeholders say.
"It's an important catalyst for the rest of the corridor development," said Ty Schuiling, Sanbag's director of planning and programming. "It provides the key linkage to the I-15."
If the expressway is built, trucks would transport foreign imports from L.A./Palmdale Regional Airport to Southern California Logistics, which has a customs office and would serve as an "inland port."
Caltrans, though, is pressing for millions of dollars from the same pot of money to construct grade separations at Colton Crossing.
At this rail intersection south of the 10 Freeway and west of La Cadena Drive in Colton, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway trains idle for hours as they wait for other locomotives and cargo to pass. About 150 trains pass through the four-way logjam each day.
"I don't believe Colton Crossing fits that bill," Mitzelfelt said about Caltrans' attempt at netting those funds. "It's important for goods movement, but the burden should be attributed to the two railroads (that use it)."
A Caltrans spokesperson wasn't available for comment. However, a January letter written by Director Will Kempton said the agency nominated the proposed Colton Crossing Grade Separation project for Trade Corridor Improvement Funds because of its "perceived statewide and regional public benefits ... derived from those improvements."
In the meantime, engineering and financial firms are no doubt seeing dollar signs as they prepare their bids.
Financial companies would pay the most for the corridor freeway and probably have rights to charge drivers a toll, recouping costs and collecting thousands in quarters and dollars every day.
But developing land along the expressway could prove even more lucrative.
With imports projected to triple over the next 25 years at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the High Desert is the only area able to hold another 1.5 billion square feet of new warehouse and manufacturing space that'll be needed. Experts estimate development of the expressway and Southern California Logistics would eventually bring 42,000 jobs to the area.
Iraj Kamalabadi with San Francisco-based URS Corp., one of the potential bidders on the project, said the expressway would probably be at least two lanes in both directions.
"I wouldn't say it's a pretty viable project, but it's worth looking into," said the transportation division manager by phone from URS's engineering branch in Ontario.
"There are still a lot of unknowns. If there's no money, there's no project. No government agency (state or local) has the funding to take this through the entire process."
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