G Street Underpass officially opens to the public

Jess Gaines, 88, vividly recalled a day in 1931 when he looked up from the school bus he was traveling in and saw one of its wheels slowly spinning on its axle.

Gaines remembered hearing the children crying and calling out for their mothers.

Eighty years later, and in the exact spot where the crash between a Fremont school bus and a freight train occurred in Merced, the G Street underpass was opened.

Some 200 hundred people came out for the festivities Saturday.

"It's a privilege and honor to help open the G Street underpass," he said.

Fifty-seven children were in the bus struck by the train. Seven of them plus the bus driver died in the tragic accident. Fifteen people were injured.

Gaines was on hand to commemorate the opening that city officials have said will help public safety teams and alleviate traffic problems.

The $18 million underpass is the first in the city. It runs underneath the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad tracks. The underpass allows drivers to travel between North and Central Merced without having to stop for trains.

G Street has been closed to through traffic at the tracks for 18 months. The work has disrupted neighborhoods and businesses.

Festivities Saturday included a Chevy Impala carrying Gaines and city officials driving through a banner that read "Merced's Road to the Future," and a bus, two Merced firetrucks and a Riggs ambulance following.

Police Chief Norm Andrade said the underpass is going to be "huge" for public safety. He said that when the trains block the north-south thoroughfares, the teams have two alternatives: use Franklin Road or the Bradley overpass.

"It should be a great thing," he said, adding that the underpass will also ease traffic from M and R streets. "It's long overdue and well worth it."

The idea for the underpass came about in a 2004 email between Cathleen Galgiani, who was then chief of staff to Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, and Ellie Wooten, who was then a Merced city councilwoman.

"We came up with the idea of a railroad crossing task force to get the railroad company to do something about trains that were stalling and blocking the hospital," Galgiani said.

At that time, about 73 percent of the city was denied access to the hospital when the trains were stalled, she said.

On Saturday, Ana Cintron, 46, was standing in front of Kristan Robinson's mural of the Merced skyline, which decorates the underpass, visibly excited about the opening. Earlier in the morning, she had read about it while at the Merced Mall and did her best to hurry and get down to the site.

Mary Hatfield, who lives at East 22nd Street and Glenn Avenue, was thankful the underpass was open, saying she had had to fight traffic for a year as the work was done. As a child, she recalled, G Street used to be named G Grade, describing it as " a hump in the road. I'm going to enjoy this day with the opening of G Street," she said, as she sat on the curb.

The project had four goals, according to City Manager John Bramble.

Those were: to improve public safety, with police and firefighters unimpeded in the travel between areas in the north and south; to help traffic circulation so people didn't have to wait for the train; to help the air quality, because the underpass would reduce the number of drivers idling their cars; and to open the corridor for people on the south side of the city to gain access to the hospital.

Don Walker, 79, said he had been waiting for an underpass for 50 years. A former Merced city firefighter with 35 years of service, he sat on a barrier between the north and south sides of G Street and recalled the 1931 accident.

"They finally did it," Walker, who has been retired for 20 years, said. "They did a good job."

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.