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Rail chief thinks 'green' at ports

Executive wants to build a $300-million facility where cargo containers would be loaded onto trains.

February 26, 2008|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

The chief executive of one of the nation's biggest railroads spent Monday promoting a plan to build a $300-million rail yard close to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where cargo containers would be loaded directly onto trains instead of being trucked up the Long Beach Freeway.

Matthew K. Rose, chairman, chief executive and president of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, touted the project, which would be located four miles from the ports. Proponents say the plan would substantially reduce air pollution and chronic traffic congestion on the 710 Freeway.

Rose pushed the plan in a variety of locations -- aboard a posh, private dining car at Union Station, in a closed-door meeting with officials from the Port of Los Angeles and during a speech at a cargo industry conference in downtown L.A. Rose said the project would enhance the environment while expanding the ability to handle a tidal wave of goods flowing through the ports from Asia.

"We need to grow, but grow green," Rose said, echoing remarks by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the same meeting.

If the Southern California International Gateway facility is approved for industrial land in west Long Beach, Wilmington and Carson, Rose said the cleanest trucks available would be used to haul containers up the Terminal Island Freeway from the ports. There, the steel containers would be loaded onto rail cars using state-of-the-art electric-powered cranes. Yard locomotives and vehicles would be powered by cleaner-burning natural gas.

"It is BNSF's commitment to build the cleanest and greenest [truck and rail] facility in North America," Rose said.

A report on the environmental effects of the project has yet to be finished by the Port of Los Angeles.

But S. David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, said in an interview that the facility would do "tremendously beneficial things in terms of the environment."

Freeman and Michael Christensen, deputy executive officer of the Port of Los Angeles, met privately with railway officials a short time later.

Environmental groups are skeptical about building a vast rail yard in an area near a high school and elementary school.

"Even if you have the cleanest trucks possible, if you're dropping 750,000 of them into a heavily impacted community, I'm thinking that's not going to be good," said David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The environmental group has filed suit against other port projects and recently warned Long Beach officials that it would go to federal court unless that port moves quickly to clean up the air.

Although railroad officials say the project will dramatically relieve truck traffic on the Long Beach Freeway, Martin Schlageter, campaign director for the Coalition for Clean Air, said the new rail yard could still have a major effect on harbor-area communities.

"The closer you are to it, the more worrisome it is to you," he said. "The reality of increasing trade is these trucks are nearer to your neighborhood and your school."

Schlageter said locomotives that would haul the trains up the Alameda Corridor and through the Inland Empire need to be upgraded with the cleanest technology possible to cut nitrogen oxides that contribute to the Los Angeles area's smog problem and to reduce microfine particulates that can cause cancer and respiratory disease.

Railroad officials have met with residents in the area around the proposed rail yard and say they have addressed some of their concerns in designing the facility. A sound wall would be built and trees planted between the rail yard and the neighboring community.

A professionally produced DVD in English and Spanish has been distributed to residents and officials, promoting the importance of the project in providing jobs and keeping the ports at the forefront of expanding international trade.

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jeffrey.rabin@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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