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ALAMEDA CORRIDOR / TRADE ROUTE ON TRACK : $1.8-Billion Rail and Truck Route Along Alameda Street From Downtown to Seaports Is Viewed as the Future of Global Commerce for Los Angeles

August 20, 1996|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alameda Street wends its way north from the docks of San Pedro Bay, runs along the pockmarked avenues of Compton and Watts, and stretches to the railroad yards south of downtown Los Angeles. From end to end, it is caked with the dirt and grime of industry.

Yet for more than a decade, city leaders have been saying that it is the street destined to become Los Angeles' next major artery, pulsing with the lifeblood of international trade dollars from across the globe.

After years of mostly talk, the 20-mile Alameda Corridor project is closer than ever to beginning construction in earnest. The $1.8-billion road and rail route is designed to speed cargo containers on trucks and trains between the seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the region's rail hub near downtown.

Work cannot continue until port and city officials along the route piece together the finances to pay for it and smooth over a number of legal niggling points. But all insist that it is a win-win deal and, as soon as today, cities along the route are expected to settle a lawsuit and clear a major legal obstacle.

Plans call for a 30-foot-deep concrete trench to run alongside 10 miles of Alameda Street, from the downtown rail yards to the Artesia Freeway. Two parallel rail lines would be laid in the trench, with a third at ground level for local train stops. From the Artesia Freeway to the waterfront, the three tracks would run for 10 miles at ground level. Opening is slated for 2001.

In all, some 90 miles of railroad tracks that now sprawl like tendrils across the southern half of the county would be consolidated into the corridor. That would eliminate 200 railroad crossings that hold up traffic, including 34 crossings along Alameda Street alone. Alameda would be widened to six lanes from four to accommodate more trucks.

For the county's twin seaports, which have paid hundreds of millions for the project, the financial commitment to the Alameda Corridor is born of necessity, not merely to relieve congestion but to handle expected growth in Asian trade. International commerce through the ports has outpaced virtually all projections for the last five years, and is expected to triple in the next 25 years.

More important, the corridor is seen as a key in a coming competition of regional economics, with Southern California pitted against the Pacific Northwest, said economist Joel Kotkin.

"This is what we need to stay ahead," Kotkin said. "We have to start thinking more like a region."

But that is exactly what Los Angeles, Long Beach and the smaller cities lining the route--Compton, Lynwood, Vernon and South Gate--have failed to do so far. The smaller cities filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles and Long Beach over how much say each should have in the finances of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.

Politicians have fawned over the yet-to-be-laid train tracks and asphalt as if they were building an express lane to Nirvana. Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan and Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill have proclaimed its "national significance."

President Clinton, who put $59 million in seed money for the project in the 1997 federal budget, sent a letter saying how important it is to fund such projects in California. When a House subcommittee approved the money, Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich insisted that his party thinks California is important too.

The money is to leverage a $400-million federal loan, said to be the last piece of required financial support.

But it is the twin ports, not the federal government, that have spent--and gambled--the most money on the project. The Los Angeles and Long Beach port commissions would bear most of the responsibility for paying back the federal loan. They have paid $400 million to buy the rights-of-way along the route from the major rail companies.

And in conjunction with the railroads, the two ports have agreed to underwrite $600 million more in revenue bonds.

*

Even though corridor planners believe they have answered the question of how they are going to pay for the project, they are still wrestling with the question of when. The federal money does not become available until October, and they are also waiting on $350 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"It's one step at a time," said Jonathan Y. Thomas, a Los Angeles harbor commissioner and the city's point man on the project. "We're dealing with each issue as it arises, and at the end of the day the I's will be dotted and the Ts will be crossed."

City and port officials insist that they can't afford to wait too long. Steamship terminals at the twin ports are already installing on-dock rail lines, which allow them to load freight from ship to train without needing to truck it. The corridor is expected to cut truck traffic on the Long Beach Freeway about 10%, Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority officials said.

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