Corridor to Offer No Traffic Relief

Staff Reporter

Motorists who were expecting relief from the worsening traffic congestion on the Long Beach (710) Freeway once the Alameda Corridor opens this April are in for a nasty surprise.

The cargo shift from trucks on the freeway to trains on the new rail corridor will be almost immediately offset by continued growth of cargo volume through local seaports, according to a just-completed study.

With 35 percent of the nation's imports and exports moving through the two local ports, proponents of freeway expansion see the current situation as a threat to future economic growth.

Without expansion of the freeway's capacity between the Port of Long Beach and the Pomona (60) Freeway, as well as greater efficiencies at the ports, traffic along the 18-mile stretch will be close to gridlock within eight years, even during non-peak periods, concludes the study, which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.In response to those findings, state and regional transportation officials are speeding up efforts for a $3.8 billion-to-$4.1 billion expansion of the Long Beach Freeway's capacity. The project could be completed by decade's end if a plan is approved soon.

"Groundbreaking should have happened yesterday," said Frank Colonna, chairman of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. "But if we start pouring concrete within the next three to five years, we'll be very fortunate. Traffic is already borderline gridlock during non-peak times. During rush hour, you might as well avoid (the 710). It is no longer a commuter-friendly freeway. Because there is very little alternative, it has become a freeway of tolerance."

He added that vehicle speeds are often 10 to 20 miles per hour along the stretch, which is normally a 65 mile-per-hour zone.

Final construction plans must be approved by the I-710 Oversight Policy Committee, which consists of representatives from 13 cities along the freeway corridor, as well as the MTA, Caltrans, Southern California Council of Governments and the Port of Long Beach.

Railway ramp-up

The 20-mile Alameda Corridor, which opens April 11, will provide rail service between the ports and rail yards east of downtown L.A., enabling as many as 40 trains a day to make the trip, with each pulling dozens of cargo cars. Currently, 25 trains a day travel between local ports and downtown rail yards. By 2020, 100 trains are expected to traverse the corridor daily.

But the number of daily trucks trips on the stretch of the Long Beach Freeway is expected to soar to 42,000 by 2020, up from 17,500 today, according to the joint transportation study completed last year by both ports.

Overall vehicle traffic on that stretch is estimated to increase to 301,500 trips per day by 2025, up from the current 253,500 trips, according to Irvine-based traffic engineering and consulting firm Parsons Brinkerhoff Quaid & Douglas Inc., which won the $3.9 million MTA contract to devise an expansion plan.

"The freeway has a direct impact on both the regional and national economy," said Richard Powers, executive director of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, whose 27 cities, Port of Long Beach and L.A. County helped fund the MTA study. "The reliability of being able to time your trip will be thrown out the window. If you can't move the goods, you're going to impact the economy."

Parsons Brinkerhoff has come up with 10 alternative congestion-relief plans. The policy committee initially expected to narrow the field to three plans by June, after which each proposal would be subject to cost, logistics and environmental studies by Parsons Brinkerhoff, as well as by state and regional agencies. The policy committee would then make their final selection in March 2003. But the June deadline has been moved up to April, and final selection is now expected in May 10 months ahead of schedule.

"We're under a pretty aggressive schedule for this type of study," said David Levinsohn, Parson Brinkerhoff's vice president and project manager. "Everybody's pushing to get this done soon."

Aggressive goals

"Maybe we're overly optimistic," said Powers of the Gateway Cities COG. "But if we can get consensus quickly, we can move on to solutions quickly. We have the capacity to get some real decisions made in the next few months."

Corridor Authority Chairman Colonna, who also co-chairs the policy committee, revealed that its members favor three of the 10 proposals. Each of those options calls for segregating trucks and commuter vehicles in separate lanes.

So far, the most popular option among planners calls for double-decking the stretch of freeway, which would require interchanges along the route to be reconstructed.

Other strategies include widening the freeway by adding lanes to either side, and then designating the outermost or center lanes as truck-only lanes. That would require tearing down adjacent houses, which would be unlikely to gain broad political support.

"That's a very difficult one to build a consensus on," said Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, adding that he would support whichever plan has consensus support. "Unless you have the cooperation of the homeowners and are paying them a tremendous amount of money, it would be very divisive (to raze homes). The city councils are not going to be tearing down these houses and then going back and facing these people."

Whichever plan is chosen, project advocates want to have the details worked out before the next federal surface transportation funding legislation is drafted. The current six-year funding legislation expires on Sept. 30, 2003, after which another six-year spending plan will be adopted.

Local officials hope the U.S. Department of Transportation will cover 65 to 75 percent of the project's construction costs, with Caltrans picking up most of the remainder. Some regional funds might be required, officials said. "This is enormous, and all the players in this are paying federal and state taxes," said Colonna.

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