Local business leaders and logistics industry officials are welcoming the release of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's long-awaited plan to spend more than $1.5 billion for projects that would speed cargo and merchandise through the L.A. region.
However, concerns are rising that bureaucratic delays, environmental regulations and, most importantly, a potential lack of funding may make it difficult to complete the projects, delaying the much-needed congestion relief.
"We see that a tsunami of containers is still headed this way and we need to plan appropriately to handle that growth," said Lena Kent, regional spokeswoman for Fort Worth, Tex-based BNSF Railway Co.
The Goods Movement Action Plan, released by Schwarzenegger earlier this month, recommends $330 million be spent on three major road and bridge improvements around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to reduce truck and vehicle congestion. It also recommends $1.23 billion for grade separations and other improvements to several rail lines near the ports and throughout the Southern California region.
However, all the projects including another $8.5 billion slated for other regions of the state must still go for approval before the California Transportation Commission, which likely may not have enough money to fund all that is before it.
Last November, state voters approved Proposition 1B, which earmarks up to $2 billion for goods movement. But that is not nearly enough for the $10 billion in proposed projects statewide though the commission could dip into other funding sources.
And while there is an expectation that matching funds will make up some of the shortfall, there is a concern that the federal government the potentially biggest source of such funds will not come through a timely manner given its budget deficits.
"The challenge now is that it takes a long time to plan and build infrastructure and with trade increasing and concerns mounting about pollution impacts, we can't afford to take a time out," said Fran Inman, senior vice president with City of Industry-based Majestic Realty Co. who also chairs the goods movement committee of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.
Barry Sedlik, acting Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing and the top Schwarzenegger official overseeing the plan, said the Administration placed a high priority on funding improvement in the Los Angeles region.
"We've already had several episodes where the canary in the coal mine has given us signals that the port infrastructure is in trouble," he said, citing a 2004 work stoppage that tied up ships outside the ports for weeks and forced shippers to divert cargo to other ports.
Sedlik said that projects were chosen for their ability to meet three criteria: moving truck or train traffic more quickly, moving more trucks or trains through choke points and making sure the roads, bridges and train tracks are in good shape.
On the road and bridge side, the Governor's plan would allocate $160 million in bonds from Proposition 1B towards the replacement of the decaying Gerald Desmond Bridge that is one of the key truck corridors to Terminal Island.
It also earmarks $111 million to redo and expand the southern end of the Terminal Island (47) Freeway, including replacement of the Schuyler Heim Bridge. Another $60 million would go towards the expansion of two interchanges near the southern end of the Long Beach (710) Freeway.
Local officials said the plan would have the dual effect of improving port trucking what Inman called the "weakest link" in the goods movement chain and reducing pollution by minimizing the time trucks spend idling.
"With each one of these projects, there's a double gain: reducing congestion and emissions," said Carl Kemp, director of government affairs for the Port of Long Beach.
Truckers themselves generally welcome this additional funding, though the California Trucking Association does have concerns about environmental regulations connected with the plan. Specifically, the association is worried that the plan adopts rules to reduce emissions from trucks that have not yet been adopted by the California Air Resources Board. Also, the plan makes reference to the eventual setting of emissions limits that trucks must meet in order to gain entry to the ports.
Environmental approvals are also of concern to ocean carriers and marine terminal operators, which are represented by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. The association says the plan appears to require additional environmental approvals for many of these projects. They say environmental concerns should be addressed with $1 billion in other Proposition 1B funds that voters approved specifically for that purpose.
"These extra strings on these projects shouldn't be necessary," said Mike Jacob, vice president with the shipping association.
The bulk of the money going to L.A. County from the goods movement plan would go to the freight rail network. It's estimated that every standard-length container freight train that can be put on this network takes about 280 trucks off roads and highways a net reduction in pollution that also reduces traffic.
"We need to increase the fraction of goods that go by rail in order to reduce congestion on the freeways," Sedlik said.
The goods movement plan proposes allocating nearly $700 million in Proposition 1B funds to the Alameda Corridor East project, the massive series of grade separations of tracks in the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire that would cost up to $3.5 billion to construct. By eliminating street-level rail crossings that can sometimes split communities, grade separations speed train traffic and reduce vehicle congestion and emissions.
Another $60 million would go towards controversial expansions of rail yards near the ports: $40 million to build a second rail yard for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. near the Port of Los Angeles (the current one will reach capacity later this year) and $20 million to a Union Pacific yard that's between the two ports.
While the rail companies say these projects are vital to handle the ever-increasing amounts of containers coming through the ports, residents near these yards have protested, saying expanding the rail yards would increase pollution in their neighborhoods.
The plan also earmarks nearly $500 million to improvements along both the Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific rail lines throughout Southern California; of that, only $67 million would be for rail lines within Los Angeles County. The rest would expand rail capacity in the Inland Empire, which is rapidly becoming a chokepoint for rail traffic. One of these projects, in Colton, would separate out rail and passenger traffic lines that currently share the same stretch of track.
The BNSF's Kent said that without these projects, shippers would be forced to send their containers to other West Coast ports. "That would mean also sending jobs to these other ports," she said.
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