Rail Route Falls Short of Potential
A year after it opened, the $2.5-billion Alameda Corridor rail line is operating at less than half its capacity and has failed to lure enough business to put a dent in the crushing numbers of tractor-trailers clogging the Long Beach Freeway and other routes leading from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
It now appears that the 20-mile railway, which was Southern California’s most expensive public works project, will not be able to meet its projection of carrying half the cargo generated by the ports without an investment of hundreds of millions more dollars and major changes in the way the shipping industry operates.
“It can live up to its revenue potential, but it can’t live up to its potential for moving boxes off the freeway,” said James C. Hankla, president of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.
The problem, he said, is that in the 18 years it took to design, fund and build the project, the economics of the Southern California shipping industry changed, making it cheaper and easier to send freight by truck than by train.
As a result, just 35 trains per day pass through the corridor, far short of its capacity of 100 a day. The trains carry about 37% of the ports’ cargo, about the same percentage as before the corridor opened and well short of the 50% that planners had envisioned, according to Hankla and others.
Hankla’s analysis disputes the positive spin put on the corridor’s operations by the two ports, the railroads and the transportation authority itself.
“To hear that it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars is just a shock,” said Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who heads the Assembly Select Committee on Ports. “We anticipated that there would be significant relief [from freeway congestion] because all those trains would be operating at higher capacity.”
“It is a disappointment,” said Councilman George Cole of Bell, a small city along the Long Beach Freeway and near the rail line, “because that traffic just continues to get worse.”
Growing unease about the railway’s failure to move trucks off the roads comes just as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority considers ambitious plans to widen the 710, the main arterial route carrying cargo from the ports.
The MTA is scheduled to vote today on a motion to shelve existing designs for freeway expansion and develop new plans that would not involve taking any homes. That vote comes after residents of communities along the 710 complained that nearly 1,000 houses and businesses would be destroyed to widen the freeway while pollution from trucks would worsen.
“The Alameda Corridor was sold to us as something that was going to alleviate truck traffic throughout the region,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes some of the communities along the freeway.
Molina, who sits on the MTA board and introduced the motion to reconsider the freeway expansion plan, said she would demand a full briefing from the Alameda Corridor agency on why the rail line has not been more successful at reducing truck traffic.
“We were never told about this,” Molina said, even though the MTA helped fund the project and must deal with the increasing traffic on area freeways.
The dilemma over how to move port cargo -- which tripled during the 1990s and is expected to triple again by 2025 -- illustrates the difficulty planners face in balancing the needs of business with the safety of residents.
The economy of Southern California -- and to a degree, the United States -- depends on continued growth from the ports, which handle 35% of the nation’s international cargo. But people who live in the 14 cities along the Long Beach Freeway say failing to reduce truck traffic will make their communities unlivable.
Lupe Villegas, 58, raised three children in her City of Commerce home two blocks from the freeway. She, her husband and two of her daughters suffer from asthma, which she blames on the ever-present vehicle exhaust.
“It gets me mad because of the congestion, the traffic, the smell -- and the people all around here are getting sick,” she said.
Big Rigs Keep Coming
The freeway carried 47,285 trucks per weekday last year, a figure expected to hit 99,300 by 2020. All along the route is evidence that the big rigs, with their huge containers in tow, just keep on coming: in the screeching of truck brakes, the honking of horns, the fumes, the ubiquitous black dust on the windowsills of nearby homes.
“We don’t like the trucks,” said Flora Ochoa, 71, of Commerce. “It’s so dangerous that most of us are taking the surface streets now.”
The Alameda Corridor was conceived in the early 1980s as a way to accommodate anticipated increases in freight traffic from the ports and to ease pressure on roads and freeways that was evident even then.
Back then, the rule of thumb was that all freight moving long distances was cheaper to send by train, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Assn. Trains could be loaded with hundreds of freight cars and powered slowly across the country, dropping off containers in cities along the way with relatively little cost.
But now, because companies expect deliveries to be made quickly and with greater precision than in the past, goods are trucked from the harbor to huge distribution centers in Colton and San Bernardino, called “inland ports,” where they are repacked and organized for easy delivery.
The goods are then put back on trucks and driven to rail yards, where they are finally put on trains for the trip east. The economics are tipped even more toward trucks by a $15 user fee charged to carry each 20-foot container over the rail line by the Alameda Corridor agency and passed on to shippers by the railroads.
The authority, which is headed by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, has begun studying a proposal that would encourage shippers to use trains on the Alameda Corridor instead of trucks.
Under that plan, which Hankla said could cost hundreds of millions, the agency would build terminals for shuttle trains that would do much the same job as trucks: hauling port cargo short distances to inland repacking centers of their own.
Hasan Ikhrata, director of planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said the Alameda Corridor’s failure to siphon business from truckers is disappointing. But he said the overall volume of traffic at the ports has increased so much that congestion would have been even more pronounced if the rail lines had not been consolidated and improved.
“We would have liked for things to have turned out differently,” Ikhrata said. “But even with the fact that people go to the inland ports, without this project things would have been even worse.”
The increase in volume has allowed the corridor to meet its revenue projections, Hankla said, but it has not provided enough income for the project to break even this year.
A financial model adopted in 1999, when the $1.3 billion in bonds to finance the project were sold, does not show the corridor breaking even until 2017, although the pace would have quickened had the rail line attracted significant new business.
This is important because, under the financial model, the ports are required to kick in the $7-million difference between the $53 million that the corridor is expected to bring in this fiscal year and the roughly $60 million that is due bondholders in interest payments.
And though the ports’ $7-million payment (an interest-bearing loan) was anticipated almost to the dollar in the 1999 documents, port officials and others had hoped that the corridor would attract so much new business from trucks that such a bailout would not be necessary, according to Hankla and others.
“The anticipation was that there was going to be an early payoff,” said county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes parts of the Alameda Corridor and the Long Beach Freeway.
Officials at the Port of Los Angeles declined to comment on the financial arrangement or Burke’s comments.
At the Port of Long Beach, Executive Director Richard E. Steinke said his port set aside the money “with the thought that we might need to make that shortfall payment.” If the deficit had not occurred, he said, the port might have used the money to pay down debt or for capital projects.
The Original Plan
The rail line, funded by bonds, state and federal grants and a federal loan, was supposed to work like this: The project would consolidate four meandering train lines into one throughway, part of it in a trench, eliminating 200 perpetually clogged rail crossings where drivers sat for up to 20 minutes in their idling cars waiting for slow-moving trains to pass.
That much has been achieved, and the project receives high marks from local residents and civic leaders for reducing emissions, improving commutes and eliminating train-related blight from Vernon to Long Beach.
But the corridor was also expected to carry an additional 1.3 million 20-foot cargo containers.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, the cargo continues to be carried by tractor-trailers on area freeways, bringing the total borne by Southern California highways to 6.3 million containers per year. Barring relief from the Alameda Corridor, that number is expected to rise to 21.5 million in 2025.
Most of it will go on the Long Beach Freeway.
Since early 2001, the engineering firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas Inc. has been conducting a $3.9-million study of how to rebuild the Long Beach Freeway to accommodate growing port traffic and commuter needs.
Three of the five plans being considered would expand the freeway significantly, by widening the right-of-way and building elevated truck or carpool lanes. Construction costs could top $4 billion, and the work could take a decade or more to complete.
Residents reacted with alarm and anger last month when they learned that those plans could force the demolition of nearly 700 homes and as many as 259 businesses. Of the 10,800 people who could be affected, 10,070 are members of ethnic minorities.
Adopting the slogan “PP -- the People or the Port,” crowds have packed public meetings, accusing traffic planners of favoring the needs of the harbor over the health of residents, and saying that their communities are choking on diesel emissions.
But if the brakes are put on the freeway project, even temporarily, that flood of cargo is not expected to recede.
According to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the ports will handle up to 34 million containers in 2025 -- three times the number that passed through last year.
The ports “are a huge economic driver in the region,” responsible for 250,000 jobs, said Richard Hollingsworth, president of Gateway Cities Partnership, a nonprofit economic development group for the gateway cities region.
But residents are chafing at the congestion and pollution that comes with living under the big trucks.
“People are beginning to question if the incremental benefits to the economy are worth the ... environmental degradation and the diminishing quality of life through additional traffic,” Hollingsworth said.