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Designs Offered to Keep Freight Moving

Times Staff Writer

Local officials are mounting a campaign to improve 18 miles of the Long Beach Freeway, a massive project that could cost more than $4 billion and take a dozen years to complete.

Supporters call the project essential to the economic health of the fast-growing ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, already the third-largest port complex in the world. They fear that, if the often-congested roadway is not improved, the flow of freight from the ports to the rest of the nation will be hindered.

In this age of globalization, the Long Beach Freeway is emerging as an asphalt Mississippi River, the chief artery carrying thousands of trucks each day from the ports to railroad yards east of downtown Los Angeles, warehouses in Riverside County and shopping malls nationwide.

Fully 15% of the United States’ seaborne container cargo volume travels on the freeway, port officials say. The surge of goods threatens to overwhelm a 1950s-era road that has outdated interchanges and narrow or nonexistent shoulders.

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Slowing down that flow strains shippers and merchants, as was seen last fall when a labor dispute led to a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports. The shutdown is estimated to have cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion a day.

The lockout was “a wake-up call about how important the issue of goods movement is to Southern California and the rest of the country,” said Hector de la Torre, the new mayor of South Gate, who has been active in Long Beach Freeway planning.

Car drivers, meanwhile, complain that they feel outnumbered by trucks.

“We still have to make room for the primary user, which is the personal vehicle,” said Long Beach Vice Mayor Frank Colonna, chairman of a policy panel dealing with plans for the road.

So design engineers are preparing five plans for the freeway’s future, ranging from a “no-build” proposal to an idea for a futuristic “truckway” to carry tractor-trailers on a second tier.

The latest cost estimates, along with details on what land might be needed for expanding the roadway, are expected to be released in days.

Local officials hope to choose one of those plans by the end of May. They say improvements are essential to assure driver safety, to ease congestion and to keep up with ever-expanding port trade.

The project faces significant hurdles, not the least of which is persuading Congress and transportation officials in Washington to spend billions on the road in an era of budget slashing.

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With initial cost estimates ranging from $2.4 billion to more than $4 billion, the freeway expansion is one of the most expensive transportation projects being planned in Southern California. Construction, if it takes place at all, will probably be in stages, beginning with improvements to the troublesome interchanges with the San Diego, Artesia and Santa Ana freeways.

The current study is being spearheaded by several agencies: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation, the Southern California Assn. of Governments and the Gateway Cities Council of Governments.

To date, the project has received surprisingly little public attention, especially compared with the long-debated plan to extend the freeway six miles north from Alhambra to Pasadena.

The 18-mile southern stretch of the freeway, by contrast, runs through some of Los Angeles County’s poorest neighborhoods. Expanding the roadway could force the demolition of some homes and businesses, and community activists are criticizing the prospect of more trucks belching diesel pollution into the air.

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No one appears to be disputing that the road needs to be improved. “It’s an outdated facility that causes traffic congestion and safety problems,” said David M. Levinsohn, vice president and senior project manager of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas Inc., the national engineering firm now conducting a $3.7-million study of the highway.

Stephanie Williams, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., is more blunt: “It’s really congested. It’s really lumpy.”

The lumpiness comes from uneven pavement warped by heavy loads. Interchanges are too close together, experts say, and short off-ramps at some interchanges force trucks to back up on the freeway.

Car-driving commuters complain that they feel helpless amid the caravans of trucks -- hemmed in, blocked from exiting, unable to see freeway signs.

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One of the worst stretches is the area near the railroad yards in Vernon and Commerce, where northbound trucks sit idling in the right-hand lanes as they attempt to exit onto Atlantic and Bandini boulevards.

Some say they have heard the freeway is one of the most dangerous in the state, or even the nation. But Caltrans statistics suggest otherwise.

The freeway logged 0.27 deaths and injuries per million vehicle miles in the last two years, compared with a state average for limited-access highways of 0.34 deaths and injuries per million miles, the statistics show. But the number of “fender-benders” on the freeway has increased steadily over the last 10 years. They should not be discounted, Levinsohn said, because they contribute to traffic congestion and delays.

For car drivers, the freeway can seem most daunting from the ports north to the San Diego Freeway. The pavement is only six lanes wide, lined by concrete walls and squeezed by homes to the west and the Los Angeles River to the east.

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Here, trucks made up 19% of traffic in 1997, a number expected to rise to 35% by 2025.

Those numbers can be deceptive. A truck’s sheer mass, and the space it needs to operate, means it takes up considerably more room on a highway than, say, a Honda Civic, or even a Ford Expedition. That is why heavy trucks use 30% to 60% of the Long Beach Freeway’s capacity, according to a recent study commissioned for the MTA. That is the greatest percentage for trucks on any freeway in the county except for a stretch of the Golden State Freeway near Santa Clarita.

By contrast, trucks use only as much as 15% of the capacity of the Santa Monica Freeway from the ocean to downtown Los Angeles. Projections for the year 2020 show trucks taking up even more space on the Long Beach Freeway: more than 60% of capacity from the harbor north to the San Diego Freeway.

Some residents thought truck traffic would be reduced dramatically with the opening last spring of the $2.4-billion Alameda Corridor, the giant rail expressway that carries cargo from the ports to inland rail yards. But the ports have grown so rapidly, planners say, that the corridor is simply slowing the increase in port traffic on surrounding roads.

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Some critics think that planners are focusing too much on the ports’ transportation needs and too little on residents who live along the freeway.

“We have communities all over Southern California breathing air pollution that results from cargo coming into L.A. that lands up in Newark and Chicago,” said Andrea Hricko, community outreach and education director at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center at USC.

Hricko has written to the MTA, urging planners to postpone selecting an alternative so that they can look more carefully at related health issues.

Luis Cabrales, director of outreach for the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, said an expanded freeway would produce more diesel fumes, noise and other problems in largely Latino and black communities. “What nobody looks at is that there are all these communities of color that are being impacted,” he said. “That’s not on anybody’s radar.”

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Consensus Planning Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, has been hired by Parsons-Brinckerhoff to educate the public about freeway planning.

Sylvia Novoa, director of client services, said the firm has worked hard to publicize the five proposals. “There is no way that you cannot be aware of people of color,” she said. “I don’t know how” Cabrales can say “that we’re not concerned. I think that’s a very unfair and untrue statement.”

The firm will hold more meetings when studies of the proposals’ potential effects are completed in March, she said.

De la Torre, who was the founding chairman of a panel overseeing Long Beach Freeway policy, said local officials are keenly aware of the problems of diesel exhaust, a known carcinogen. They have even launched a program that helps companies trade in old trucks for newer, cleaner-burning models, he said.

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Allowing trucks and cars to continue idling on a congested highway is no solution to pollution troubles, he said.

Some are calling on the ports to explore how to move more operations to evenings and nights, so that more trucks would travel when the highway is least crowded. The concept is receiving increased attention nationwide as port cities attempt to ease traffic congestion. But port officials caution that shifting hours is not an easy task.

“You’ve got to remember that when a container gets picked up, it needs a destination to go to,” said Ron Reddick, director of engineering development at the Port of Los Angeles. “If the warehouses are closed -- the Wal-Marts and so forth -- where is that container going to go?”


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