The Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority will begin a rail shuttle pilot program next summer that's aimed at alleviating truck traffic congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Import containers would be loaded onto trains directly from ships after they arrive at the ports, and then sent to a Colton rail yard near Inland Empire warehousing and distribution centers. This would reduce truck traffic on the Long Beach (710) Freeway and other roadways between the ports and Colton, 60 miles to the east.

Under the pilot program, one 50-car Union Pacific Corp. train carrying 100 40-foot-long containers of cargo would be used each weekday which would barely scratch the surface of the ports' overall cargo flow.

Ultimately, the plan calls for a $200 million rail yard to be built by the authority somewhere near the Inland Empire. Seven daily train trips, moving 1,500 containers per day, are envisioned.

"It's going to take an entire system-wide approach to reduce congestion and this is one of the elements," said John Doherty, chief executive of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.

The Alameda Corridor was built partly as a way to reduce freeway traffic by siphoning off cargo that was otherwise placed on trucks. But within a year after its April 2003 opening, corridor officials realized they would not achieve their goal of moving 50 percent of the ports' container traffic unless a shuttle operation from the ports to the Inland Empire was created.

The shuttle service would require building tracks off the corridor heading east to the warehouse and distribution centers.

But the cost of such an investment bred caution among the various constituencies involved in moving container traffic. Corridor officials opted to use an existing rail line for the pilot program before investing in a full-scale shuttle program. Tracks between the ports and the Colton rail yard already exist and provide access to the 10, 15 and 215 interstate freeways.

For the pilot program, the authority will have to invest about $5 million to lay down two 2,500-foot long tracks and additional paving within the Colton yard to accommodate the 100 daily containers. Corridor officials said they are looking for federal and state funding sources to offset some of the cost.

Even so, the cost of moving goods by rail is higher than by truck. An additional $1.5 million to $2 million will be needed during the trial period to subsidize cargo owners and vessel lines for the difference in costs.

The price differential could prove to be the biggest hurdle in the long run. The cost to haul a container from the ports to the Inland Empire is about $250 by truck, or $350 to $400 by rail.

Additionally, the larger plan would require significant investment by railroad operators for additional tracks. For that reason, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. decided against taking part in the shuttle program. Company officials remain skeptical a larger-scale program would work.

"We're always open to exploring options to improving the movement of goods through Southern California," said Lena Kent, spokeswoman for Burlington Northern. "(But) at this point, we don't see it as economically viable."

Alameda Corridor officials insist that vessel operators ultimately will want to use the program because rail services would become less costly and closer to trucking prices as more cargo is hauled. Furthermore, corridor officials believe vessel operators would be willing to pay a little more for the guarantee that their goods are not delayed at the ports or freeways.

"As long as they can get a container to their door by rail at (nearly) the same price that it now costs them to get it there by truck, they are interested," said Doherty.

Union Pacific officials said they decided to take part in the pilot program because the company owns the Colton yard and will not be expected to fund any of the initial start-up costs.

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