The $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor has long been touted as the solution to massive traffic congestion caused by trains crossing over south Los Angeles County roads to and from the ports.

Tell that to the 31,000 drivers who travel each day along Pacific Coast Highway in Wilmington.

After more than a decade of delays by Caltrans in building a bridge over two railways that intersect the highway and Alameda Street, the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority has wrested control of the project. But the action comes too late to beat the corridor's April 2002 opening and massive traffic jams could result as the bridge is built amid increased train traffic.

"Some people think (congestion) is already intolerable," said Jim Hankla, chief executive of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority (ACTA). "Train traffic is going to be increasing substantially longer trains and more of them. It's implicit that some of the delays are going to involve emergency vehicles. In the minds of some motorists waiting for the trains to go by, it will become a commuting disaster."

Delays so far will push the bridge's cost from $74 million to $107 million. Construction will be done 18 months after the Alameda Corridor opening.

The 20-mile rail expressway corridor will allow trains to move twice as fast from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rail yards east of downtown L.A. As a result, daily traffic is expected to increase from the current 25 trains most with dozens of cargo cars linked to the locomotives to as many as 40 trains. By 2020, 100 trains will use the rail daily.

To eliminate traffic congestion, 29 bridges are being constructed over the railway while 200 at-grade crossings are being eliminated.

Planned since 1993

Caltrans initially took on the PCH grade separation project its only contribution to the corridor because PCH is a state highway. It hired the Los Angeles Department of Public Works in 1993 to design a mile-long bridge using a portion of the $74 million appropriated by the state in 1987.

But Caltrans placed those plans on the back burner, despite years of pleas from Alameda Corridor officials and state legislators, Hankla said. No intersection along the corridor has a greater volume of train and vehicle traffic.

By the time full designs began about three years ago, inflation had taken its toll. Caltrans ordered the DPW to begin designing a bridge to fit the original $74 million budget cutting the length of the mile-long grade separation in half.

Caltrans' bridge would have crossed over the rail expressway, formerly Burlington Northern Santa Fe's line, as well as the adjacent Alameda Street. But the San Pedro branch of the Union Pacific Railroad to the west would have remained uncovered, bringing traffic to a halt every time light-rail trains coming to and from San Pedro crossed PCH.

"We based our decisions on the data we were given," said Karen Fong, design office chief with Caltrans. "At the time, we were told we only needed one (short) bridge."

Caltrans rebuffed claims that it placed the bridge low on its priority list, attributing the delays to difficult right-of-way negotiations with Equilon Enterprises, which operates nearby oil refineries. Tearing up the existing road will require the temporarily moving of some of the refinery's underground pipes, officials said.

"Don't underscore the level of complexity that this adds," said Doug Failing, chief deputy of Caltrans district 7, which covers the L.A. area.

"It's an exceedingly sensitive operation and one that has to be approached with all caution. That oil refinery must remain in operation (during construction.)"

ACTA began pressuring the state in 1998 to assume control of the project. But it was not until early 2001, when the agency learned of the plans for the short bridge, that ACTA stepped up its pressure to take over management of the grade separation. Caltrans agreed to relinquish control in July.

Almost immediately, HDR Inc. of Orange was hired to design the mile-long bridge. With ACTA now managing the project, negotiations have restarted with Equilon a process expected to take 12 to 14 months. ACTA, meanwhile, has budgeted $37.5 million from the $107 million for utility relocations, soil clean up and other expenses.

"The frustrating part was getting the recognition at the state level that this was a serious problem," said Hankla. " (Caltrans) basically felt the short bridge was an adequate solution. I don't think they had a keen understanding of the number of trains that would be traversing at Alameda Corridor and PCH."

Once bridge construction commences, the gridlock will shift from PCH to whichever detour routes are approved by Caltrans.

"There is going to be a lot of traffic in that area," Failing acknowledged. "(Motorists) will have to decide whether it's a necessary trip or a trip of convenience. Then they will have to make a choice: can they make the trip at a different time or can they use a different route away from the congestion. Once the new (bridge) is open, they'll be very forgiving."

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