Today, it’s a 150-acre swath of industrial land sandwiched between a freeway and a drainage channel, a space for parked truck trailers and a few 70-year-old warehouses.

But in five years, the Wilmington site could be crisscrossed with mile-long tracks and dotted with 90-foot cranes – the largest new rail yard in Los Angeles County in three decades.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. wants to build the $500 million yard to serve expected growth in international trade at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The yard would handle as many as 1.5 million shipping containers a year, more efficiently transferring them from trucks to trains bound for destinations such as Chicago. It’s something proponents say is critical if the port complex is to stay ahead of East Coast ports that could be reached by vessels from Asia after the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2014.

“We would not be investing this kind of money in this economy if we didn’t see it as extremely important,” said Lena Kent, director of public affairs for Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF. “We see that we need to keeps the ports of L.A. and Long Beach competitive.”

BNSF has been working on the proposal for six years, and two weeks ago the project reached its biggest milestone yet: the release of a lengthy environmental impact report that provides details about the yard. The report now awaits public comment and Los Angeles Harbor Commission approval.

A speedy decision by the commission could allow BNSF to start construction in 2013 and open it as early as 2016. However, the project is far from a certainty, even though the report estimates it will eliminate 1.5 million truck trips each year on the clogged Long Beach (710) Freeway, the usual route trucks use to haul containers to the railroad’s existing yard in Commerce.

Neighborhood and environmental groups are pushing the railroad to clean up its existing rail yard operations before getting approval to build an entirely new facility.

Cargo gateway

The yard, called the Southern California International Gateway, would be built just north of the Pacific Coast Highway and west of the Terminal Island (103) Freeway on land owned or targeted for acquisition by the Port of Los Angeles.

The site is about four miles from the port complex, 20 miles closer than Hobart Yard, BNSF’s 245-acre facility in Commerce that handled about 1 million containers last year.

Once the new yard is completed, BNSF plans to send nearly all its cargo containers from the port there, while Hobart will handle cargo coming from within the United States.

In handling 1.5 million cargo containers annually, the new yard will have about the same capacity as the much larger Hobart, which has been in use since the 1800s. That’s a reflection of the new yard’s more efficient layout and newer technology.

The yard would have 12 sets of tracks, each 4,000 feet long, joined at the north and south ends. Electric cranes spanning several sets of tracks would lift cargo containers from trucks onto trains headed for destinations such as Houston; Chicago; or Memphis, Tenn.

BNSF began planning for the project right before port traffic peaked in 2006 after a string of record-setting years, but then trade declined for three straight years amid the recession. Container traffic started climbing again last year and could hit an all-time high this year. Port officials estimate cargo traffic will soon outgrow the region’s existing rail facilities, and the yard aims to meet the need.

“At some point, that cargo is going to return to this area and we’re going to be ready for it,” Kent said.

John Husing, an economist who specializes in Southern California goods movement, said the BNSF infrastructure project is crucial to keeping the twin ports competitive.

If retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot U.S.A. Inc. can’t get their cargo out of the ports quickly, Husing said, it might be worthwhile for them to import on the East Cost. But as long as the region has enough rail and transportation capacity, customers will stay with the San Pedro Bay ports.

“Either we are going to be the efficient way to get the goods in, or we’re not,” he said. “Panama increases the potential competition, and this is a key piece of the infrastructure to keep us competitive.”

BNSF is one of two major railroads that serve the ports and ship goods to the rest of the nation. The other, Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Railroad, already has a rail yard close to the ports and is planning to expand that site. Long Beach also is looking to expand a rail yard at one of its piers, and both ports want to extend rail lines to more docks, where containers could be transferred directly from ships to trains.

On track

With the draft EIR released, the port began accepting public comments on the yard proposal Sept. 23. The comment period will end Dec. 22; the port will later hold a public hearing on the project.

BNSF has been touting the environmental benefits of the project, which upon opening will cut smog-forming emissions on the Long Beach Freeway by more than half, according to the environmental impact report.

Also, the railroad will require that within a decade 90 percent of the trucks serving the yard either use liquefied natural gas or have equivalent emissions. That requirement is in addition to and more stringent than the ports’ clean truck programs, which required truckers over the past few years to replace old diesel trucks with the cleanest new models.

The railroad further plans to limit the trucks to specific routes and equip them with GPS monitors to ensure they aren’t straying into residential neighborhoods and close to schools.

In fact, BNSF is calling the yard the “greenest” of its kind and has held numerous public meetings and knocked on more than 1,000 doors near the proposed yard to explain its proposal.

Nevertheless, not all neighborhood and environmental groups have been won over. Some say that even if the yard has the immediate benefit of reducing freeway truck trips, it will double the railroad’s capacity to handle port containers.

“We can attract more business and more international cargo,” complained Angelo Logan, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, one of the local environmental groups monitoring the project.

The Natural Resources Defense Council also is pushing BNSF and Union Pacific to first clean up its rail yards statewide before either moves forward to expand yard capacity.

In fact, the Washington, D.C.-based organization is threatening to sue both railroads this month because it says they have not responded to demands to replace old polluting diesel trains and trucks at its yards.

“They need to clean up what they’ve got before they start building new yards,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the NRDC’s L.A. office.

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