Ever since a giant cargo transfer facility opened just south of Carson in November, more and more trains have been blocking automobile traffic and virtually isolating neighborhoods east of Alameda Street.
Angry residents of the Dominguez and Lincoln Village neighborhoods have repeatedly complained to the Carson City Council that long trains coming out of the facility, which routes cargo containers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach onto trains and trucks, frequently take half an hour or more to pass the few streets running east and west in the area.
"They get those trains running through there for hours," said Maria Jimenez, who lives in the 2500 block of Jefferson Street, at Tuesday's council meeting.
City statistics agree with her. Trains block the main east-west streets an average of 3.9 hours a day, according to observations made shortly after the Intermodal Cargo Transfer Facility opened. By 1990, the expansion of cargo traffic is expected to cause delays 5.1 hours a day, according to Harold Williams, the city's public works director.
Short-term efforts to alleviate the delays involve scheduling trains around the peak morning and afternoon traffic periods.
In the long run, however, the city has been banking on construction of overpasses to carry Carson Street and Del Amo Boulevard over Alameda Street and the tracks. The cost is estimated at $10 million for each overpass. The city planned to finance the project with a combination of state and federal money and funds from the ports.
Last week, however, the city learned that its overpass plans may be held up by federal and state requirements, Williams said.
"The good news is that we have the money," he said. "The bad news is that we don't actually know (when) we are going to get the money to go forward with the construction. . . . This is more red tape."
Money in Port Bill
Early this year, $74 million for port projects, including overpasses for Carson Street and Del Amo Boulevard, was approved by Congress in a bill pushed by Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Long Beach). The federal funds would provide 80% of the cost and local or state funds the remainder.
But city officials are not enthusiastic about using the federal money.
"When money comes from heaven, all kinds of strings come attached to it," Williams said.
The problem with federal funds is a requirement for an environmental impact report, which can take a year to 18 months. City officials are prohibited from spending federal funds for engineering and design until the report is completed--a provision intended to eliminate costly redesigns. Williams said the design work is estimated to cost up to $375,000.
State Waives Report
To avoid such delays, the city also applied to the state for overpass funds. California specifically exempts overpass projects from state requirements for an environmental impact report. Williams said the state typically awards about $15 million a year for overpass projects.
On April 1, the Public Utilities Commission approved a $5-million allocation for an overpass for Carson Street. The remainder of the estimated $10-million cost was to come from the ports.
Williams said his first reaction after hearing that the Carson Street project was funded by the state was jubilation: "We thought it was going to be, 'The money's here. Let's go.' "
But last week, Williams said, Caltrans officials said they would require the city to use the federal funds. That way, with 80% federal funding, the state would have to provide only $1.5 million instead of $5 million, and would use the difference to fund overpass projects elsewhere. The ports will contribute $500,000 to make up the balance.
Williams said the city is asking federal officials whether their requirement for an environmental impact report can be waived. "We hope to know within 90 days," he said.
If the city prevails, construction could be completed in three years "if everything worked without a hitch," Williams said. If federal officials insist on an environmental impact report, the state has agreed to pay for the engineering and design work so the project will not be held up while the report is being prepared.
Williams said he believes that moving ahead simultaneously with engineering and an environmental report is sound policy because it is unlikely that any recommendations stemming from an environmental impact report for the overpass will require major changes in design.
In the meantime, the council on Tuesday chose an alignment for an overpass for Carson Street just north of the existing road. Putting the overpass south of Carson Street would add $6 million in relocation costs because a monitoring facility owned by the Dominguez Water Co. would be in the way. Building directly over Carson Street is out because it would prevent the street being used during construction.
State Funding Doubted
The second overpass project, at Del Amo Boulevard, is so far down the state list of overpass projects that it is likely never to be funded by the state, Williams said. The city plans to use federal money to fund most of that project in spite of the red tape.
Meanwhile, careful railroad scheduling has alleviated traffic delays during peak hours.
John Tierney, spokesman for Southern Pacific, said that since June the company has attempted to keep crossings clear between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
"It has worked fairly well," Tierney said, "I'm not saying it works 100%, but it is better than it was in the past."
Said Williams: "We don't get as many complaints as we used to."
Maria Jimenez acknowledged that she has noticed a "slight improvement."
"I guess they are trying," she said.