El Monte underpass will relieve freight chokepoint

Paul Hubler of the Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority at the newly built Baldwin Ave. underpass due to open in El Monte in February or March 2015.
Paul Hubler of the Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority at the newly built Baldwin Ave. underpass due to open in El Monte in February or March 2015.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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A new underpass beneath the Union Pacific Railroad tracks at Baldwin Avenue in El Monte is set to open in the next few weeks. It's  part of a long-term campaign by governments and transportation giants to lessen the safety, air pollution and traffic burdens created by increasing levels of global cargo.

The $76.7 million Baldwin Ave. underpass, one of 20 planned at rail crossings across the San Gabriel Valley, marks the halfway point in a $1.4 billion makeover of 55 rail crossings by the Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority. Work on all the crossings is set to be completed within four years. A half-cent sales tax pays part of the cost.

The authority is a joint powers agency of San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the railroad. The agency was created in 1998 to reduce the traffic, safety and air quality degradation caused by increased port traffic and the trains and trucks that carry cargo inland.

Before the underpass was closed in 2013, some 28,000 vehicles daily passed through Baldwin's street-level rail crossing, many idling and adding emissions to the air while waiting for the 18 Union Pacific and six Amtrak trains that pass each day.

Several hundred of those idling vehicles were  trucks from a nearby Vons Distribution Center, headed south on Baldwin Ave. to Interstate 10. Those trucks have been taking a mile-long detour  past homes and schools during construction. When the underpass opens, the trucks will once again have more direct access to the freeway.

The underpass significantly changes the El Monte street scene. The land underneath dozens of homes and several businesses was purchased and the structures razed to make room for the underpass. The underpass will also make the area quieter, as Union Pacific trains will no longer need to sound a horn or ring warning bells at Baldwin Ave.

Train traffic is projected to increase to 40 trains each day over the next ten years, said Paul Hubler, spokesman for the construction authority.

"These grade separation projects are really mitigations of nationally significant trade that’s moved by train through Southern California," Hubler said.

Nearby resident Bill Sissoyev said he was tired of the construction dust, the thumping of heavy machinery, and above all, having to drive a mile out around the construction zone to get across town.

"You know how (difficult) it is to go out of the way to not go down Baldwin?" Sissoyev said from behind the wheel of his truck at the still-closed underpass. "This is the most convenient way to get from here to there."

But he welcomes the underpass. "It's going to save me all kinds of time," he said. "Now, I can't hardly wait."

Student Tamara Fernandez says her walk to school will be a mile shorter once the underpass is completed. She said she and fellow students at Gidley Elementary School have been late to school when trains are stalled on the tracks.

The next underpass will be completed next year at Nogales Street in the city of Industry.  That crossing affects 45,000 vehicles per day, mostly trucks.