RIVERBANK -- Stanislaus County will install traffic lights at an intersection where six people died after an Amtrak train slammed into a sport utility vehicle five years ago.
The $1.1 million project is slated for where Claribel Road crosses Terminal Avenue and the BNSF railroad tracks, a heavily traveled intersection that is controlled by stop signs. Drivers sometimes stop on the railroad tracks as they wait to clear the intersection.
The California Department of Transportation announced this week that it had awarded Stanislaus County the money for the project.
Construction is not expected to start until late spring 2014, said David Leamon, a sen-ior civil engineer with the Stanislaus County Public Works Department. He said the work should be finished no later than August 2014.
A California Public Utilities Commission spokesman said the May 2007 incident that killed six people played a role in expediting the funding.
Maricruz Corral, 23, was driving a 2001 Geo Tracker east on Claribel Road. She had stopped at a stop sign at the tracks, with the front end of the Tracker sticking over the track's first rail, witnesses said.
As an Amtrak train approached, Corral tried to back up but couldn't because of cars behind her, witnesses told authorities. Corral apparently panicked and pulled forward onto the tracks into the path of the train, which was going 79 mph, California Highway Patrol investigators said.
The families of those killed in the accident sued the county and Amtrak in federal court. The county settled with the families in January 2011 for $1.15 million. An Amtrak spokeswoman said Thursday that The Bee would have to file a federal Freedom of Information Act request for Amtrak to release how much it paid.
Leamon said construction won't begin for two years, in part because of the need to get a permit from the Public Utilities Commission and the long lead time required by BNSF. The railroad is working with the county on the intersection upgrade.
County, BNSF will share
Leamon said the county will receive $650,000 of the $1.1 million to install signal lights and for other upgrades. He said the railroad will receive the balance of the $1.1 million to synchronize the signal lights with approaching trains.
Leamon said that as a train nears Claribel Road, signals will turn green so Claribel traffic can clear the intersection before the signal arms drop.
In addition to making the intersection safer, Leamon said the improvements will reduce delays at the busy intersection. He said based on a 2007 traffic count, the most recent year for which data is available, about 11,500 cars and trucks drive through the intersection on Claribel daily and about 4,500 cars and trucks on Terminal Avenue daily.
"This is a fairly busy intersection for the county," Leamon said.
The $1.1 million is part of $136 million California received from the Federal Highway Administration. The funding had been allocated to other states but was not spent.
Caltrans has awarded $83 million of the $136 million, and the intersection at Claribel and Terminal was the only project in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Caltrans will allocate the remaining $53 million in about two weeks. Stanislaus and San Joaquin are among the counties that may receive funding then.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.