More people, containers are the problem

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

That the Southern California highway system is congested is a well known fact to just about everyone. It is, perhaps, an understatement. The Southern California Leadership Council, a business-sponsored public policy partnership in the Southern California region, says the situation will only get worse unless infrastructure improvements are made now.

Freight movements in the Southern California region do not constitute the entire problem, but they are certainly part of the problem, and could well represent a major part of the solution. When it comes to bringing infrastructure projects to fruition, especially the development of rail projects that could mitigate highway congestion, the various stakeholders in the region often work at cross-purposes, according to Wally Baker, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, a member of the council.

Baker points to some daunting statistics. Population growth in the six-county Southern California area around and including Los Angeles will surge from 22.2 million in 2010 to 25.1 million in 2020. The latter figure represents growth of nearly 30% over 2000 population figures.

Meanwhile, annual container traffic through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which stood at 9.65 million teus in 2001 and stands at 14 million teus today, will reach 36.10 million teus in 2020. Looking at all these numbers together means that the problem imposed on the region by freight transportation includes not only containers moving through Southern California, but also increased volumes moving to Southern California for local consumption.

‘It’s a very big deal,’ said Baker. ‘The entire container volume in the US today is 35 million teus per year. These statistics mean that by 2020, we in Southern California will need the capacity of the entire United States today.’

The SCLC has launched a public education campaign in an effort to find a solution to the region’s highway and freight transportation infrastructure problems. The council believes that, along with general highway expansion and improvements, it is necessary to move over a million freight trucks from the highways to rail in order to increase highway capacity and lessen congestion.

‘Against the wall’

Additional rail infrastructure would be required in order to achieve those ends, but proposed projects often get blocked, according to Baker. ‘There has to be more of a coordinated effort, because doing nothing is not working,’ he said. ‘For every container train that is built, we create space for 750 more cars on the freeway and we definitely can’t build any more freeways.

‘We have two years of rail capacity left,’ he added. ‘There is no way we will come up with additional rail yards and get it done in two years. We are against the wall right now.’

Baker said there are several infrastructure projects on the drawing boards that could provide some relief, but ports and local communities have thrown roadblocks in their way. ‘As soon as they see the finish line, they move the finish line,’ he said.

Baker points to two projects in particular that have been sidetracked. Pacific Energy is interested in building additional oil import facilities at the Port of Los Angeles, but has been blocked by the port. BNSF Railway, together with others, are involved in an intermodal facility called the Southern California International Gateway, which has also been delayed.

As for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, they say that they support infrastructure enhancements and point fingers at others for any problems that may exist. They also hasten to point out that the current holiday shipping season is passing with a minimum of congestion at the ports.

‘With regard to congestion, both ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach came through this year’s peak shipping season with zero congestion,’ said Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. ‘This is a credit to the many p