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REGION : Project Will Ease Rail-Caused Traffic

Huntington Park businessman Nick Alexander can’t wait for the year 2001--that’s when he expects traffic jams to end in front of his Alameda Street auto dealership.

Mile-long walls of freight trains traveling at a turtle’s pace or stopping on the tracks have tried the patience of many a potential client trying to get to Alexander Imports.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone call and say ‘I would have bought a car (at your dealership), but I waited in front of a train for 25 minutes and turned around instead,’ ” said Alexander, who imports BMWs and Volkswagens.

But the constricting web of railroads that for decades have acted as a dam holding back customers from businesses in Southeast-area cities is soon to be broken.

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Construction is underway on the Alameda Corridor, which when completed in six years will allow the growing number of freight trains running from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to Downtown Los Angeles to move along entrenched railroad tracks. Overpasses and underpasses will be constructed at key intersections.

“The depressed section of the corridor will look like a flood control channel, but with railroad tracks in the middle,” said Gill V. Hicks, general manager of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, the joint powers authority governing the project.

The project is expected to cost $1.8 billion, of which $1.1 billion has been raised from railroads, ports, the state and revenue bonds. Officials say the transportation authority hopes to get the rest of the money from the federal government as the project proceeds.

Construction on the 10-mile sunken portion, from 25th Street on the north in Los Angeles to the Glen Anderson (105) Freeway on the south, will begin in 1997, Hicks said. The first phase of construction began in October with the Carson Street overpass in Carson.

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Improvements include lowering the two main railroad tracks below grade by about 30 feet in a concrete-lined trough 47 feet wide. A 12-foot-wide maintenance road, also sunken, will run next to the tracks.

Cities between 25th Street and the 105 freeway are landlocked by a network of train tracks from the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads.

Branch routes such as the Southern Pacific rail that runs along Randolf Street--often clogging Huntington Park’s main artery, Pacific Boulevard--will be rerouted to the corridor, Hicks said.

Freight traffic between the ports and Downtown has grown in accordance with the increase in imports and exports over the years.

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The ports generate 29 train trips a day, using four different train tracks and affecting more than 200 grade crossings, Hicks said.

By the year 2020, the ports will be able to generate 100 train trips daily. Most of the trains will be double-stacked, stretching as long as 8,000 feet, Hicks said.

“For the Southeast area, the main thing is it’s going to take away the three railway systems and stop disrupting the commerce and the quality of life,” said Suzanne Rabinski, project coordinator with the office of Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Huntington Park).

“The Alameda Corridor is not going to solve all the problems in the world or the Southeast area,” said Huntington Park Councilman Tom Jackson, chairman of the corridor authority. “But the gridlock in the Southeast will soon be over and it will give the ports the ability to expand without harming all the people in the area.”

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Bridges will be built over the trench for main Southeast cross streets such as Firestone Boulevard and Vernon, Slauson, Gage, Florence and Southern avenues.

The sunken parts of the corridor will do away with congestion at 25 intersections in Huntington Park alone, making businesses like Alexander’s more accessible for clients and employees, who are often late because of traffic jams.

In Vernon, with merely 100 residents, traffic wouldn’t seem like such a concern. But with more than 44,000 people a day flocking to 1,100 businesses in the five-square-mile city at the foot of the Downtown freight yards, traffic characterizes a way of life.

Both Union Pacific on the East and Southern Pacific on the west bisect Vernon Avenue. In fact, some trains crawl on tracks that cut through Santa Fe Avenue, making the western end of Vernon a virtual island.

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When those streets are blocked, “that means people coming or going to work can’t get through to Huntington Park or South Gate, where they live,” said Dolores Petullo, general manager of Vernon Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a dangerous situation.”

Freight carried by rail takes up to eight hours to move across the Los Angeles Basin because trains must travel at speeds of 5 to 10 m.p.h. as they pass through 34 street crossings.

“The longer the trains go, the harder it is for us to do business,” Petullo said. With entrenched railways, freight trains will reach speeds of 35 to 45 m.p.h.

Truck traffic will also be reduced by 23%, according to the corridor authority, as more cargo shifts to trains.

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