In answer to the article headlined “Wider Berths” in the Aug. 15 issue, which was about the possibility of even more container terminal expansion, let’s say that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are lacking not space but imagination.
Both Los Angeles and Long Beach have long contended that their container terminals are running out of room, and that the answer is more terminals, more rail yards, more widening of freeways to put more trucks on L.A. roads.
That’s looking backwards for the answer. Looking ahead, we see a way to re-create the twin ports – and in the process create hundreds of thousands of green jobs – with green infrastructure spreading to the Antelope Valley, Inland Empire and beyond.
We urge you to “Google Earth” over the ports and look closely. You will see an ocean of container parking – and something else: rows and rows of roads. As much as 40 percent of a container terminal is occupied by flat asphalt for container-moving machines and truck access – making for the most expensive parking lots on Earth.
In March 1968, Henry J. Kaiser, steel magnate, founder of Kaiser Permanente and father of American shipbuilding, filed a patent describing the first vertically consolidated container terminal.
But 40 years ago, there were no environmental impact reports. Diesel engines had no regulations, land was cheap, paving was cheaper and the explosive growth in the industry was so profitable that an innovation like Kaiser’s simply wasn’t considered. In short, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ruled the day.
Today, the ports have several thousand acres committed to container terminals – land worth billions of dollars. This land could be put to better use – if it could be freed from its role as container parking.
The clumsy and antiquated system that juggles containers among ships, trains and trucks, clogging freeways and crushing neighborhoods, dismayed Kaiser. And jacking containers on and off three or four different vehicles during a 40-mile trip to the big rail yards inland costs importers and exporters millions of dollars.
Container chain logistics have barely changed in more than 50 years.
Instead, ships and cranes got bigger, trains got longer, and truck trips grew by millions each year. Container facilities sprawled madly. The changes were only of scale.
In Los Angeles County, tens of thousands of trucks from as far as Riverside journey between the ports with containers in tow – often empty.
Drivers sitting in traffic for hours seemed like the first of many issues to address.
Enter GRID (“Green Rail, Intelligent Development”) and the GRID SuperDock, whose designer has spent his professional career in commercial logistics – seven of them managing longshore operations at Long Beach’s largest container terminal facility. The SuperDock not only moves containers off and on ships, it sorts them within itself and deposits them directly onto trains.
The SuperDock includes two rail facilities, in fact. One is a spur sending conventional trains directly from shipside to the Alameda Corridor – reducing turnaround time from 36 hours to three. The other is a synchronous system capable of loading a dedicated 7,500-foot train in minutes. This train will traverse the city on a reserved, fully electrified right-of-way – running underground most of the time to preserve neighborhoods.
The SuperDock will push the Alameda Corridor to optimum use. The new electrified rail system will increase capacity and generate construction jobs regionwide. We should be doing everything in our power to reduce truck deliveries and maximize rail deliveries, not only to attack freeway congestion but to maximize the competitiveness of our mercantile economy.
Operating concessions will attract private capital to fund construction. GRID is also looking at a new species of public- private partnership, with a joint-powers authority involving state and federal entities to streamline the process.
Our ports are national assets. They are gateways between American producers and consumers and the rest of the world. Greening the movement of goods while multiplying its efficiency would be the greatest infrastructure opportunity in America today. If we were to clone GRID on all three coastal regions, over 1 million jobs would be spawned – and billions now earmarked for freeway expansion projects could be put to use rebuilding current infrastructure in our deteriorating cities.
There is nothing like GRID out there today – but there’s no reason there shouldn’t be. The GRID concept uses mostly existing technology correlated in new ways to create modules that can work as stand-alones, plugged into current rail networks or together as synergies. Either way, GRID saves money for all involved – shipping companies, railroads, cities, merchants and consumers – while freeing up land for development, creating revenue and jobs in the region.
GRID has something for everyone.
To get it for Los Angeles and Long Beach, we need political leadership, political will. We also need a willingness to look beyond business as usual in the private sector. And both of those will happen.
The alternative is to be left behind, sitting in a traffic jam while the future speeds by without a backwards glance.
David J. Alba, GRID project designer, has managed operations at the Port of Long Beach’s largest container terminal facility. Richard Risemberg is co-editor of the urban sustainability webzine the New Colonist, publisher and editor of bike commuter webzine Bicycle Fixation, and owner of a small business in Los Angeles that designs and manufactures clothing for bicycle commuters.
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