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Designs Offered to Keep Freight Moving

Five alternatives are proposed for renovation of an 18-mile section of the Long Beach Freeway. One is a futuristic, second-tier 'truckway.'

March 21, 2003|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Local officials are mounting a campaign to improve 18 miles of the Long Beach Freeway, a massive project that could cost more than $4 billion and take a dozen years to complete.

Supporters call the project essential to the economic health of the fast-growing ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, already the third-largest port complex in the world. They fear that, if the often-congested roadway is not improved, the flow of freight from the ports to the rest of the nation will be hindered.

In this age of globalization, the Long Beach Freeway is emerging as an asphalt Mississippi River, the chief artery carrying thousands of trucks each day from the ports to railroad yards east of downtown Los Angeles, warehouses in Riverside County and shopping malls nationwide.

Fully 15% of the United States' seaborne container cargo volume travels on the freeway, port officials say. The surge of goods threatens to overwhelm a 1950s-era road that has outdated interchanges and narrow or nonexistent shoulders.

Slowing down that flow strains shippers and merchants, as was seen last fall when a labor dispute led to a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports. The shutdown is estimated to have cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion a day.

The lockout was "a wake-up call about how important the issue of goods movement is to Southern California and the rest of the country," said Hector de la Torre, the new mayor of South Gate, who has been active in Long Beach Freeway planning.

Car drivers, meanwhile, complain that they feel outnumbered by trucks.

"We still have to make room for the primary user, which is the personal vehicle," said Long Beach Vice Mayor Frank Colonna, chairman of a policy panel dealing with plans for the road.

So design engineers are preparing five plans for the freeway's future, ranging from a "no-build" proposal to an idea for a futuristic "truckway" to carry tractor-trailers on a second tier.

The latest cost estimates, along with details on what land might be needed for expanding the roadway, are expected to be released in days.

Local officials hope to choose one of those plans by the end of May. They say improvements are essential to assure driver safety, to ease congestion and to keep up with ever-expanding port trade.

The project faces significant hurdles, not the least of which is persuading Congress and transportation officials in Washington to spend billions on the road in an era of budget slashing.

With initial cost estimates ranging from $2.4 billion to more than $4 billion, the freeway expansion is one of the most expensive transportation projects being planned in Southern California. Construction, if it takes place at all, will probably be in stages, beginning with improvements to the troublesome interchanges with the San Diego, Artesia and Santa Ana freeways.

The current study is being spearheaded by several agencies: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation, the Southern California Assn. of Governments and the Gateway Cities Council of Governments.

To date, the project has received surprisingly little public attention, especially compared with the long-debated plan to extend the freeway six miles north from Alhambra to Pasadena.

The 18-mile southern stretch of the freeway, by contrast, runs through some of Los Angeles County's poorest neighborhoods. Expanding the roadway could force the demolition of some homes and businesses, and community activists are criticizing the prospect of more trucks belching diesel pollution into the air.

No one appears to be disputing that the road needs to be improved. "It's an outdated facility that causes traffic congestion and safety problems," said David M. Levinsohn, vice president and senior project manager of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas Inc., the national engineering firm now conducting a $3.7-million study of the highway.

Stephanie Williams, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., is more blunt: "It's really congested. It's really lumpy."

The lumpiness comes from uneven pavement warped by heavy loads. Interchanges are too close together, experts say, and short off-ramps at some interchanges force trucks to back up on the freeway.

Car-driving commuters complain that they feel helpless amid the caravans of trucks -- hemmed in, blocked from exiting, unable to see freeway signs.

One of the worst stretches is the area near the railroad yards in Vernon and Commerce, where northbound trucks sit idling in the right-hand lanes as they attempt to exit onto Atlantic and Bandini boulevards.

Some say they have heard the freeway is one of the most dangerous in the state, or even the nation. But Caltrans statistics suggest otherwise.

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