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Danger by the Truckload

October 23, 2003

Any commuter who regularly braves the heavy truck traffic on the Long Beach Freeway must fear the kind of accident that happened Oct. 9. A big rig crashed through a median and into an oncoming car, killing a total of six people in both vehicles.

The state Department of Transportation says it can't afford to replace the wood-and-metal median barriers with steel-reinforced concrete ones. But lacking even more than money is leadership, as agency after government agency studies then shelves plans to update and widen the aging freeway.

The deadly accident, followed by the increased traffic pressure caused by the MTA strike, has drivers on the 710 screaming for relief. Now Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the San Pedro area around the Port of Los Angeles, has stepped into the vacuum.

Rather than focusing on what can't be done because the state doesn't have the money, Hahn says she wants to find out what can be done to ease truck traffic -- now -- starting with expanding hours at the L.A. and Long Beach ports.

Behind the explosion in truck traffic is a boom in business at the ports. Cargo tripled in the 1990s and is expected to triple again by 2025; the number of trucks on the freeway -- 47,000 a day in 2002 -- is projected to double or triple as well.

The year-old Alameda Corridor, the $2.5-billion rail line from the ports to downtown Los Angeles, was intended to move 50% of the ports' containers. So far it is moving only 36%, with many shippers unwilling to pay the extra fee to send a container by rail.

The Alameda Corridor shouldn't be held up as the sole solution for an ever-rising volume of cargo. Hong Kong and Singapore, the only two ports busier than Los Angeles-Long Beach, operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The L.A.-Long Beach ports are open only during the day, guaranteeing unendurable rush hours.

To stay open longer, the ports would have to reach agreements with their unionized dockworkers, convince shippers to absorb higher offloading costs and get destination warehouses to stay open so that trucks would have somewhere to unload their goods. The ports' shipping fees would have to be jiggled to provide incentives to ship, truck or receive goods at off hours. It's admittedly a lot to orchestrate. Until now, no one has tried.

At Hahn's urging, the ports this month formed a group that intends to launch pilot projects to try out expanded hours next year. It's a small step, but at least politicians and the ports are making a start on this matter of life and death.

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