The adjacent ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles handle more cargo than any other port in the United States: 2.3 million shipping containers a year. However, the status of the ports has long been threatened by competition from the ports at Seattle and Tacoma, not because of inadequacy of facilities but because of cargo gridlock on land.
Conclusion of an agreement in principle this week between harbor officials and the Union Pacific Railroad on use of railroad right of way for a long-planned improvement in the freight corridor is a key step toward solidifying Los Angeles/Long Beach as the dominant cargo point on the West Coast. It's also an important step toward lasting economic recovery for this troubled region. But if negotiation with the Union Pacific, and the other freight rail haulers, was hard--and it was--completing the Alameda Corridor project promises to be no easier.
Half the ports' cargo moves by rail along the corridor, the major link between Downtown and the harbor and the foremost route for the movement of goods in the state. Travel along the route, which roughly parallels Alameda Street, is grindingly slow. The track is not grade-separated, meaning that mile-long freight trains must stop often as they creep through congested industrial areas. The corridor project, years in the planning, would submerge the 20-mile-long rail track in a trench below street level. Grade separation, with bridges for cars, would alleviate much of the street congestion caused by the existing rail lines and permit nonstop travel to and from the ports.
State, local and harbor officials have spent years negotiating an agreement with three rail lines over their rights of way and the fee-for-use structure that will prevail. Union Pacific's approval of this operating agreement is one of the last hurdles before corridor and port officials can formally ask Congress for construction funds. The rail company agreed in principle to sign this week; the final documents reflecting that agreement are now being drafted.
Construction of overpasses for cars along the southern end of the route is under way. Funds for this work, and for right-of-way purchase, come from port revenue and bonds to be repaid with fees collected once the improved corridor is in operation.
This week the Port of Long Beach withdrew from the project until a lawsuit filed by four of the small cities along the route is resolved. The port's move is, in effect, an attempt to force the cities to dispose of the lawsuit and move the project along. However, the real obstacle is money. The project needs $700 million. Project officials are counting on either loans or appropriations from the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.
Congress must respond promptly. Continued inefficiency in cargo handling seriously threatens Los Angeles' dominance as a center for international trade. Upgrading the Alameda Corridor--this low-tech and decidedly unglamorous public works project--is among the highest priorities for this region.