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A Smooth Ride for Freight Railway

Transportation: The $2.4-billion, 20-mile Alameda Corridor project linking local ports with train hub is completed on time and within budget.

April 12, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As large-scale public works projects go, the $2.4-billion Alameda Corridor is a rare achievement.

The 20-mile rail cargo expressway linking the nation's busiest harbor complex to train yards near downtown Los Angeles opens today on budget, on schedule and free--relatively--of the problems that usually accompany giant projects.

A monument of stealth architecture two decades in the making, its centerpiece is a 10-mile, below-ground rail line that will hardly be noticed in the six cities it courses through.

Yet the Alameda Corridor's economic benefits will ripple across the nation from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the vast warehouse distribution centers of the Inland Empire and on to East Coast markets.

"The Alameda Corridor is a point of personal pride for Southern California," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"It went smoothly," he said, "because everyone involved knew in their heart of hearts that it would help keep this region at the forefront of being able to attract new jobs."

Initially, few would have predicted such an outcome.

It took four years of often acrimonious negotiations just to decide how to construct the railway. And many merchants complained of lost business once work commenced.

The Alameda Corridor was designed to boost Southern California's status in global trade as a beachhead for a third of the waterborne commerce coming into the United States, much of it directly from Asia and Latin America.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach already handle more than $200 billion worth of goods a year.

Within 25 years, state transportation officials say, that volume could nearly quadruple to the equivalent of more than 36 million containers--half of them bound for points outside California via the Alameda Corridor.

Locally, officials say, the state's largest public works project will provide a range of long-term environmental and economic benefits in some of the Southland's most heavily industrialized cityscapes.

By consolidating 90 miles of branch rail lines into one route, the corridor will eliminate conflicts between trains and street traffic at 209 rail crossings from downtown to the harbor.

Planners predict significant reductions of noxious emissions from idling cars and trucks waiting for 20 to 35 trains a day to creep past--at 8 to 15 mph--in Los Angeles, Vernon, Compton, Lynwood, Huntington Park, South Gate and Carson.

Now, those trains will haul $100 billion a year in imports at 40 mph through a 33-foot-deep, 50-foot-wide trench largely paralleling Alameda Street.

Building that steel and concrete canyon required 150 million pounds of rebar, 1 million cubic yards of concrete, the removal of 4 million tons of dirt and the relocation of 1,700 lines for sewers, gas, electricity and fiber optic service.

Digging below the water table also called for disposal of millions of gallons of sludge tainted with heavy metals and other pollutants.

Standing on a flatbed train car in the trench during a recent tour, Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer James C. Hankla said, "This was a big, complicated project with a lot of moving parts.

"But I had the best engineers in the world, and we never lost sight of our goal," he said. "It's an example of what can be accomplished when governmental agencies join together to work in cooperation with the private sector."

If nothing else, the Alameda Corridor, which runs through nine political jurisdictions marked by conflicting interests and is operated by rival ports and railroad companies, is a testament to the perseverance of an assortment of disparate parties.

Unlike the Century Freeway--one of the most expensive in the nation's history--and the Metro Rail Red Line subway, both of which came in late, over budget and racked with controversy, "this project is being looked at very closely across the nation because it arrived as planned and avoided potentially serious political skirmishes," said Long Beach City Councilman Frank Colonna, a member of the authority.

Not to say it escaped controversy. The city of Huntington Park, for example, was among six cities that fought hard and successfully to have the railway run below ground level as it passed through their territory.

"Having four rail crossings within a mile-long stretch of Alameda meant our whole city was blocked off several times a day by trains that were more than a mile long," recalled city engineer Pat Fu.

"Drivers couldn't even detour. People were going other places to shop," Fu said.

The project was eventually built by the joint-powers authority, which managed to forge consensus on the most vexing issues and tap an innovative mix of public and private funding sources.

The two ports were the chief financiers, providing $394 million. The corridor authority issued $1.2 billion in revenue bonds.

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