As business at the state’s shipping ports continues to grow rapidly, the movement of freight across urban areas has become a priority for the Schwarzenegger administration and local transportation planners. The situation is becoming acute in Southern California because of ever-increasing business at the port complex in Long Beach and Los Angeles, already the nation’s busiest port complex by far.

Administration officials and members of an appointed working group are refining a “Goods Movement Action Plan” to identify priority projects. The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) adopted its own freight movement plan last year. Leaders of both efforts say that passage of the $20 billion transportation bond in November could provide some of the funds needed for highway and rail improvements. But even the $2 billion designated in the bonds would appear to be a small percentage of what is needed statewide. The SCAG plan identified $26.2 billion worth of highway and rail project needs over 25 years in metropolitan Los Angeles.

The SCAG report summarizes the situation: “Southern California faces an extraordinary economic opportunity and a frustrating policy dilemma. The rise of Asian trade through Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor to the nation has given the area its first clear-cut competitive advantage for the creation of good-paying blue collar jobs since the rise of aerospace after World War II. A 1,381,000-job economic strategy aimed at providing entry into the middle class for some of the 44.2% of local adults with no college experience is now possible. But with the San Pedro Bay ports handling 43% of containers entering the U.S., our region is starting to drown in a sea of trucks and trains plus the fumes and noise they produce.”

The numbers are startling. The Long Beach and Los Angeles ports handled more than 13 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent container units) in 2005, which is more than analysts had projected only a few years ago for 2010. The ports could see as much as 44.7 TEUs in 2030. The growth at the Long Beach port in 2005 alone equaled all of the freight handled in a year at Seattle’s port.

The Schwarzenegger administration began examining the issues in early 2005 via a working group headed by California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Alan Lloyd and Business, Transportation and Housing (BTH) Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak. The idea is to improve the flow of freight across California without sacrificing the environment or public health.

The administration has identified the needs and the types of improvements necessary to meet those needs, and has considered sample projects named by regional planners, said BTH Undersecretary Barry Sedlick. “Now it’s a matter of how we prioritize,” he said.

The first step is to determine how money from the state Legislature’s bond package may be integrated into the goods movement strategy. The governor had originally proposed $4 billion worth of bonds for freight movement with the intent of leveraging $11 billion more, Sedlick explained. The bonds on the ballot provide $2 billion but require no matching funds from other entities, he said. The administration could reveal this month how much would be available for goods movement, and what the project priorities should be.

The state plan and the SCAG plans are not identical, but they have the similar goal of accommodating the import/export and logistics businesses while trying to more than offset environmental degradation. Probably the one project that nearly everyone can agree on is the Alameda Corridor East. That project involves rail grade separations for the Union Pacific tracks from East Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley and into San Bernardino County, and for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks through northern Orange County and into Riverside County. Without those grade separations, some cities could face nearly complete gridlock within 10 years, said Jeff Lustgarten, a SCAG spokesman.

Other consensus projects include construction of an expressway from the ports to the 110 freeway to get trucks off Wilmington surface streets and the 710 freeway, and extension of rail lines directly to the docks.

“The biggest hurdle to getting any of this done is money. The bond money is not going to be a cure-all, but it starts getting money for some of the high priority projects,” Lustgarten said.

Environmental and public health concerns are also a hurdle, especially considering the Long Beach-L.A. port complex’s ranking as the top generator of air pollution in the region. Poor communities near the port complex and along transportation corridors suffer most because of air pollution from diesel burning ships, trucks and trains, environmental justice advocates say. They argue that businesses in the goods movement industry should pay fees to improve environmental conditions and protect public health.

However, there is not much agreement on what those environmental improvements should be, or who should pay for them. The state Air Resources Board in December 2005 and earlier this year passed a regulatory package aimed at reducing diesel air emissions at the port complex by two-thirds, even while business triples. The air board plan counts on ships, trains and trucks using cleaner-burning diesel, and new engines for port loading equipment.

“The plan is a combination of regulation by this agency, and local and federal agencies where they apply, and agreements between us and various entities at the ports,” air board spokesman Jerry Martin said. “It’s designed to ensure Californians get to enjoy the benefits of that [port] expansion without the public health cost.”

Port of Los Angeles officials, though, insist that they need environmental programs to implement immediately. Environmentalists argue that the air board’s package did not go far enough, and that the state should insist the industry pay fees into an environmental program.

Shipping industry representatives say businesses are willing to pay some fees, but they insist on voluntary and market-based programs rather than government mandates.

Officials behind the goods movement plan acknowledge that planning only for infrastructure improvements is pointless.

“All of these goods movement projects are nonstarters unless they go hand-in-hand with environmental relief projects,” Lustgarten said.

“We need to do a much better job of land use planning and considering how that relates to transportation,” added Undersecretary Sedlick. “The cities need to recognize and appreciate that they can’t just be bystanders in this process.”

Barry Sedlick, Business Transportation and Housing Agency, (916) 323-5416.
California “Goods Movement and Ports” website:
Southern California Association of Governments goods movement