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24-Hour Port Touted as Way to Ease Traffic

May 24, 2003|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

With plans to widen the Long Beach Freeway shelved amid community opposition, transportation officials are turning to a more basic approach to easing congestion: shifting truck traffic from daytime to night.

Grappling with an ever-growing volume of seaborne cargo, some planners think the best quick fix may be to switch the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach from an 8-to-5 shift to round-the-clock operations.

That would allow trucks to move on near-empty freeways at nighttime, rather than jamming traffic lanes and intimidating car drivers during peak commuter hours.

A 24-hour port would require persuading some of the world's largest shippers and retailers to change their routines so cargo can be moved at night. That could be a tough sell, since it could add to labor costs as workers at warehouses and stores move to nighttime shifts.

But proponents say it is essential, not only to ease traffic, but to avoid costly shipping delays in a region where clogged freeways are now the norm.

"All this stuff has always moved in the daytime, and that was always good enough. And it's not good enough anymore," said Robin Lanier, executive vice president of the Waterfront Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing importers and exporters.

"And the fact it's not good enough anymore is costing a lot of people a lot of money."

The idea is winning support from some of the most vocal opponents of the proposed Long Beach Freeway widening, who said they would tolerate more trucks traveling the roadway after dark, even if it meant more traffic noise at those hours.

In fact, some residents suggested the approach at recent community meetings, recalling that many trucks traveled at night during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. They said the extra noise is better than the alternative: demolishing hundreds of homes to expand the freeway.

"If you had a choice between being kicked out of your house and a little more noise, there isn't a choice," said Gilbert Estrada, lead researcher for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a citizens group in East Los Angeles and Commerce.

The Long Beach Freeway has become a symbol of traffic woes throughout the region as expanding international trade has turned the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach into the third-busiest port complex in the world.

Most cargo leaves the ports via truck, and fully 15% of the nation's international container trade travels along the 710 freeway en route to rail yards east of downtown Los Angeles, warehouses in the Inland Empire and importers nationwide. Much of the cargo spills onto Interstates 5 and 10 and other routes throughout the region.

The Long Beach Freeway alone carried 47,285 trucks per weekday in 2002, a number expected to climb to 99,300 by the year 2020.

Traffic planners historically have passed over operational changes -- such as changing schedules of cargo flow -- in favor of expanding and rebuilding roads.

But the unanticipated roadblock to plans to widen the 710, planners say, is teaching a hard lesson: Sometimes the most grandiose plans may not offer the most practical cures.

That lesson was brought home Thursday when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors voted 10 to 0 to shelve three 710 freeway construction designs produced in a 28-month, $3.9-million engineering study. Those costly designs included one for a futuristic "truckway" that would move trucks on four elevated lanes above other traffic.

The designs have been opposed by residents in Long Beach, Commerce, Bell Gardens and other cities along the freeway route who learned six weeks ago that construction could force the demolition of up to 1,000 homes and businesses.

In response, the MTA board instead threw its support behind a dark horse in the design competition, a so-called Alternative B that had drawn little attention earlier from some local leaders who were more focused on expanding the entire 18-mile stretch of freeway from East Los Angeles to Long Beach.

That plan emphasizes improving cargo flow by moving toward 24-hour pickups at the port complex and keeping closer tabs on empty containers, which can clog traffic just as filled containers do. It would add more meters to freeway entrance ramps, add bus service and restrict parking on major cross streets during peak traffic times.

A panel representing 14 cities along the route will meet next Wednesday to decide on the next step. It is expected to work with the MTA staff to develop an expansion plan for the 710 that would not take homes or businesses.

The demise of the 710 expansion plan poses a very different challenge than the one playing out in the San Fernando Valley, where Caltrans this week canceled a proposal to widen the Ventura Freeway.

The Long Beach Freeway decision affects not only commuters, but also retailers, manufacturers and shippers who rely on "just in time" delivery and swift transportation to get goods on store shelves nationwide.

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