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Rail Corridor's Slow Start

June 01, 2003

Boosters of the Alameda Corridor bragged last year that the 20-mile, $2.5-billion rail line from Southern California ports to downtown Los Angeles came in on time and under budget. They're silent now about shippers not rushing to use it. And truck traffic on the jammed Long Beach Freeway is as dense as ever.

It's not just a matter of enticing the shippers. The basic economics of freight hauling will keep the rail corridor, which connects with downtown rail yards, well below capacity for years to come.

The corridor, which took 18 years to complete, underscores the cumbersome nature of slow-moving public works projects that are hard to refocus or stop. Old-timers recall that fierce lobbying by railroads and cities along the corridor right of way eliminated a truck lane from consideration in the early 1980s.

Transportation logistics also were turned on their head in the time it took to plan, fund and build the corridor.

Railroads were seen as highly efficient freight haulers in the early '80s. But the equation changed as retailers, manufacturers and distributors opted for "just in time" shipments and built huge, truck-friendly distribution warehouses in Colton and San Bernardino.

The Alameda Corridor is far from a white elephant -- port container traffic tripled during the 1990s and will triple again by 2025, eventually filling the corridor rail line. That doesn't help motorists trapped between huge trucks on the slow-moving I-710. The lesson to be learned is that putting in place one piece of the jigsaw puzzle -- even doing it on time and under budget -- won't necessarily produce a big picture that's complete.

Railroads and shippers did get a corridor to move cargo destined for markets outside of Southern California. Cities along the routes of four inefficient rail lines that were rolled into the corridor saw an end to railroad-crossing gridlock. But freight, like a free-flowing river, prefers the path of least resistance. And, for much of the oceangoing cargo landing at the West Coast's dominant port, the easiest path remains the increasingly crowded but still cost-effective Long Beach Freeway. A "build it and they will come" mentality won't change that fact.

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