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SPI-owned tracks must go from Hwy 49

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SPI-owned tracks must go from Hwy 49

Friday, November 20, 2009

By Roger Phelps

At Sierra Pacific Industries' expense, a problem rail crossing of Highway 49 in Martell will be torn out and an arguably hazardous pavement condition around the track redone.

SPI is responsible for maintaining state highway pavement for several yards surrounding the old Amador Central Railroad tracks it owns.

Some Amador residents say the roadway at the tracks is pitifully unworkable, especially with a 40 mph speed limit allowing vehicles to crash down onto tracks, then bump up again violently, then crash down again from an elevation back to the normal pavement height.

"It sucks," said Pine Grove resident Dave Petriello. "If you go over at 40 mph, you can knock your front-end alignment out."

In addition, Amador County Transportation Commission officials are concerned that motorists' excessive slowing for the tracks for safety's sake impairs traffic flow out of a congested intersection at a nearby four-way stop, at Martell Road and Highway 49, said Charles Field, executive director. They also protest county buses' still having to stop at a rail crossing that has been non-viable for nearly two months.

It was in September that SPI tore up tracks on its land beside the highway. The action came in a company move to develop acreage it owns into a business park named after the old railroad.

Although SPI suggested recently that fiscal responsibility for track removal and re-paving on Highway 49 lay with the county transportation commission and the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans doesn't see it that way.

"We've initiated a project to remove the track," said Bob Boswell, agency spokesman. "SPI might give us permission to remove it, and they would pay us."

Alternatively, the company could deploy the crews necessary to get the project done, Boswell said. For several yards on either side of a rail line crossing a road, the railroad owner is responsible to maintain the roadway in working fashion.

Petriello drives a sturdy-looking, newish American-made pickup truck.

Boswell said that the idea crossed Caltrans officials' minds in September that track across the highway should come out - because no trains could reach the highway after SPI had removed parts of the old working rail line. However, the idea never went anywhere at the time, Boswell said

SPI spokesman Mark Luster said in October that the company was concerned only with track on its land, which it was removing, not with track across the highway.

However, after Caltrans learned of reported public-safety concerns, the tracks-should-go idea gained momentum, Boswell said.

Field said early this month that Caltrans officials had called the transportation commission office about the matter, and that an ACTC board agenda item in January will concern the safety of the railroad crossing.

Still, a complex history of the rail line must be reviewed by Caltrans' legal department. For example, it must be settled that it is not the state's Public Utilities Commission, rather than the transportation department, that has ultimate say in the matter, he said.

PUC spokesman Andy Kotch said his agency regulates road crossings by passenger rail lines only, and not by commercial lines. So on first glance, Kotch said, it appears straight forward that it is not the PUC that regulates the Highway 49 crossing of the Amador Central line, which has long been known as a commercial line, hauling local wood products westward to hook up with larger lines.

But Boswell said research suggests the line was originally founded as a passenger line, a fact that could complicate matters of jurisdiction. Furthermore, the federal agency which had control over whether SPI could abandon the rail line and take up tracks on its private land - the Surface Transportation Board - has no authority to force SPI to take up tracks on a public roadway, according to agency officials. That's true despite the fact the transportation board could find SPI violated federal permit conditions - designed to safeguard the environment at a site known to have been contaminated with wood-products toxins - in removing track on private land.

SPI's record is notably spotty on compliance with the myriad of regulatory directives it is legally bound to observe in its various commercial operations. Public-relations officials have been closemouthed about affairs regarding the Amador Central Railroad.

Luster did not respond by press time to a request for comment on Caltrans' decision.

However, Boswell said he's convinced decision-making officials at SPI will decide to cooperate with the state.

"We have people talking to SPI," he said. "The SPI guy we have talked to was very responsive."

Not all residents interviewed saw the tracks as a pressing safety issue.

"It would be nice if they could coordinate that with other repaving on Highway 49," said Fiddletown resident Helen Ford.

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