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Rail Route Falls Short of Potential

The Alameda Corridor from the harbors hasn't lured enough cargo to ease freeway congestion.

May 22, 2003|Sharon Bernstein and Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writers

A year after it opened, the $2.5-billion Alameda Corridor rail line is operating at less than half its capacity and has failed to lure enough business to put a dent in the crushing numbers of tractor-trailers clogging the Long Beach Freeway and other routes leading from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

It now appears that the 20-mile railway, which was Southern California's most expensive public works project, will not be able to meet its projection of carrying half the cargo generated by the ports without an investment of hundreds of millions more dollars and major changes in the way the shipping industry operates.

"It can live up to its revenue potential, but it can't live up to its potential for moving boxes off the freeway," said James C. Hankla, president of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.

The problem, he said, is that in the 18 years it took to design, fund and build the project, the economics of the Southern California shipping industry changed, making it cheaper and easier to send freight by truck than by train.

As a result, just 35 trains per day pass through the corridor, far short of its capacity of 100 a day. The trains carry about 37% of the ports' cargo, about the same percentage as before the corridor opened and well short of the 50% that planners had envisioned, according to Hankla and others.

Hankla's analysis disputes the positive spin put on the corridor's operations by the two ports, the railroads and the transportation authority itself.

"To hear that it's going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars is just a shock," said Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who heads the Assembly Select Committee on Ports. "We anticipated that there would be significant relief [from freeway congestion] because all those trains would be operating at higher capacity."

"It is a disappointment," said Councilman George Cole of Bell, a small city along the Long Beach Freeway and near the rail line, "because that traffic just continues to get worse."

Growing unease about the railway's failure to move trucks off the roads comes just as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority considers ambitious plans to widen the 710, the main arterial route carrying cargo from the ports.

The MTA is scheduled to vote today on a motion to shelve existing designs for freeway expansion and develop new plans that would not involve taking any homes. That vote comes after residents of communities along the 710 complained that nearly 1,000 houses and businesses would be destroyed to widen the freeway while pollution from trucks would worsen.

"The Alameda Corridor was sold to us as something that was going to alleviate truck traffic throughout the region," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes some of the communities along the freeway.

Molina, who sits on the MTA board and introduced the motion to reconsider the freeway expansion plan, said she would demand a full briefing from the Alameda Corridor agency on why the rail line has not been more successful at reducing truck traffic.

"We were never told about this," Molina said, even though the MTA helped fund the project and must deal with the increasing traffic on area freeways.

The dilemma over how to move port cargo -- which tripled during the 1990s and is expected to triple again by 2025 -- illustrates the difficulty planners face in balancing the needs of business with the safety of residents.

The economy of Southern California -- and to a degree, the United States -- depends on continued growth from the ports, which handle 35% of the nation's international cargo. But people who live in the 14 cities along the Long Beach Freeway say failing to reduce truck traffic will make their communities unlivable.

Lupe Villegas, 58, raised three children in her City of Commerce home two blocks from the freeway. She, her husband and two of her daughters suffer from asthma, which she blames on the ever-present vehicle exhaust.

"It gets me mad because of the congestion, the traffic, the smell -- and the people all around here are getting sick," she said.

Big Rigs Keep Coming

The freeway carried 47,285 trucks per weekday last year, a figure expected to hit 99,300 by 2020. All along the route is evidence that the big rigs, with their huge containers in tow, just keep on coming: in the screeching of truck brakes, the honking of horns, the fumes, the ubiquitous black dust on the windowsills of nearby homes.

"We don't like the trucks," said Flora Ochoa, 71, of Commerce. "It's so dangerous that most of us are taking the surface streets now."

The Alameda Corridor was conceived in the early 1980s as a way to accommodate anticipated increases in freight traffic from the ports and to ease pressure on roads and freeways that was evident even then.

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