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Talks End on Rails to Link Ports, L.A. : Transportation: Long Beach is second harbor to drop negotiations with Southern Pacific. But backers say Alameda Corridor may yet provide efficient cargo transport.

September 02, 1993|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials with the Port of Long Beach ended negotiations with Southern Pacific Transportation Co. on Wednesday, at least temporarily derailing the Alameda Corridor rail project designed to ease congestion and modernize the passage of goods to and from local ports.

The 20-mile, $1.8-billion project would stretch from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles, allowing trains to travel at 40 m.p.h. in an area where tons of goods move by truck over crowded roads or by slow-moving rail cars.

In June, officials from the two ports tentatively agreed to purchase the right of way from Southern Pacific Transportation Co. for $260 million. But in recent weeks, attempts to complete the arrangement were stymied, as Mayor Richard Riordan's five newly appointed harbor commissioners scrutinized the multimillion-dollar deal.

Critics had blasted the proposed agreement, calling it the "Great Train Robbery of the 1990s" because of what they contended were huge profits to be made by Southern Pacific.

"The whole deal was a five-letter word: greed ," said Jerry Epstein, a member of the California Transportation Commission.

Officials have long said that the Alameda Corridor would ease heavy truck traffic, lessen air pollution and create thousands of local job during its construction. The two ports annually handle about 100 million metric tons of goods, including fruit, lumber, electronic equipment, cars and coal, said Gil Hicks, executive director of the Alameda Corridor Project.

The June agreement allowed the ports to back down from their proposed purchase anytime before today if officials had not resolved several issues, including condition of the title, environmental clean-up and a joint operating agreement with the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. Last month, citing those three issues, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners pulled out, leaving Long Beach officials still at the negotiating table.

"With the Port of Los Angeles pulling out of the deal and limited time available to resolve issues, we had no choice but to terminate negotiations," Long Beach Port Executive Director Steve Dillenbeck said Wednesday. "There's no way we can buy it alone."

Dillenbeck and others said they believed that termination of negotiations does not necessarily doom the project.

"I still remain very optimistic that the Alameda Corridor is not dead," said Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Huntington Park), who campaigned on a promise to push for the project, which runs through her district.

But Tom Houston, a Southern Pacific spokesman, said he believes that Riordan Administration officials were attempting to lower the previously arranged price and that Southern Pacific would no longer negotiate.

"It's a case of the new deputy mayor, (Michael) Keeley throwing his weight around and trying to negotiate a better deal. We will not renegotiate," said Houston. "It's a grandstand play that's going to harm all of L.A. . . . The ripple effect of the loss of this project is a real tragedy. And this is an Administration that's supposed to be promoting businesses and finding new jobs."

Keeley said he believes the project is still viable.

"The new Administration is committed to the Alameda Corridor project," he said. "The ports' terminations create some risk that the project will be delayed."

Construction on the project had been scheduled to begin in 1995, allowing the corridor to open in 2000.

Cargo is now transported by trucks over often-congested streets and freeways. It also travels by train on tracks that intersect roads, slowing speeds to as little as 5 m.p.h.

Once built, the Alameda Corridor would place a portion of the railroad tracks in open trenches, allowing the trains to travel about eight times as fast as they do now.

Many view the project as a boon to a job-starved area.

Harbor-area Councilman Rudy Svorinich rebuked Southern Pacific for saying it would no longer negotiate.

"I think that rather than Southern Pacific trying to pull away from the negotiating table and from the two ports, it would be in the best interest of all parties if (Southern Pacific) would begin to address the issues raised by the ports," said Svorinich, whose district stretches from San Pedro to Watts.

Times staff writer Lisa Richardson contributed to this story.

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