BNSF project faces challenges, but compromise could be at hand

By: | at 12:51 PM | Channel(s): Intermodal News  Ports & Terminals  

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) proposed Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project, a $500m truck/rail transfer plan for the Port of Los Angeles faces serious challenges. Law suits filed by the City of Long Beach and the National Resources Defense Council contend that additional trucking and rail service will create serious pollution to the West Long Beach community which adjoins the Port of Los Angeles site where the SCIG project is to be built. But the real question might be whether mega on the dock rail projects accompanying new terminal construction in both Los Angeles and Long Beach represent an entirely new direction for intermodal operations.

The BNSF project has been a lightning rod for controversy for the San Pedro ports. Although the rhetoric has been at times harsh, compromise might be already on the table. A City of Long Beach official told theAJOTthat the framework of a compromise might be reached if all sides are willing to show “leadership” on the issue. He said that “allowing SCIG to take the law suit route could delay it for years and undermine the good things the project has to offer. In the last couple of months, the dust has had a chance to settle and this has allowed tempers to cool here so that there could be an opportunity for a resolution.”

The Long Beach official, who asked not to be identified said, “This is a good project with important impacts to relieving truck congestion using intermodal rail moves, but all parties need to work together: Burlington Northern, Port of Los Angeles, City of Long Beach and Port of Long Beach as well as the residents of West Long Beach.”

Lena Kent, director public affairs for BNSF, says BNSF has proposed building a sound proof wall and a barrier with intensive landscaping to separate SCIG and West Long Beach, “but neither proposal has won acceptance by the Long Beach community.”

The City of Long Beach official toldAJOT“this is fundamentally a good project that would take trucks off the road and is operationally intended to reduce emissions.” He added that perceptions in Long Beach were adversely impacted by a lack of transparency by Los Angeles/BNSF:

• “There was a lack of transparency in the environmental review process that did not provide a full and detailed disclosure of the over-all environmental impact.

• The lack of community involvement with residents and the City of Long Beach created a lack of trust that this project was going to move forward regardless of the impact on Long Beach. There are several schools in the area and the added emissions are a concern to Long Beach residents.”

From the Long Beach side, there are complaints that Los Angeles is implacable and attempting to force project approval over Long Beach objections. From the pro-SCIG side, concern is expressed that SCIG opponents do not wish to compromise, because environmental organizations see the dispute as a moral battle against any new port development.

A spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles toldAJOTthat the Port could not comment: “The issue is in the hands of the attorneys and we cannot comment further”

Mega On-Dock Rail

Another aspect of the controversy is the mega-on-the-dock-rail projects that could be a game changer, not only for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach but for every major box terminal project in the world. The new on-dock rail projects at both ports may reduce the need for an off-dock rail facility such as SCIG. The new mega-on-dock rail terminals being built for the OOCL Mid-Harbor project at Long Beach, the Los Angeles Berth 200/TraPac project as well as the existing APMT terminal at Los Angeles consolidate more containerized rail moves onto container terminals.

Earlier this year, a Port of Long Beach spokesman toldAJOTthat the OOCL rail yard will have the capacity for 2,000 container lifts per day. This capacity will be supported by 8 x 4,000 foot working tracks plus 4 x 4,000 foot support tracks. The container via rail throughput is projected to be 1 million teus per year. Similar to the controversy over the impact of the rebuilt Panama Canal the question of whether the mega on-the-dock rail renders obsolete terminals like SCIG has both advocates and detractors.

The BNSF contests the notion that on-dock rail will replace off-dock rail: “The Ports have already maximized the size of planned and proposed on-dock railyards and support infrastructure, and additional capacity is needed close to the ports.

Despite the efforts by the Ports to increase on-dock capacity and by the railroads to increase utilization of on-dock rail, on-dock rail isn’t an alternative to SCIG.”

In a March 7th press release, the Port of Los Angeles stated that the state-of-the-art intermodal rail facility is designed to help meet current and future containerized cargo volumes: “Initially, SCIG is expected to handle approximately 570,800 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units or 20-foot containers). By 2035, SCIG is projected to handle a maximum of 2.8 million TEUs.”

In March, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission certified the Environmental Impact Report for SCIG. In the March the Port of Los Angeles stated: “The project would reduce truck traffic, freeway congestion and air pollution by eliminating approximately 1.3 million truck trips annually along a 24-mile stretch of the Long Beach (710) Freeway to BNSF’s Hobart Yard near downtown Los Angeles. “

BNSF noted in a May 8th release: “The $500 million facility, located within four miles of the San Pedro Bay ports, will shorten the distance trucks loaded with cargo need to travel before transferring the containers to rail, instead of traveling 24 miles up the 710 Freeway.” The 710 Freeway is the main link to Los Angeles, rail yards and distribution centers in Southern California.


On May 15th, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster was quoted by KPCC - Southern California Public Radio – stating that BNSF has been unresponsive to community concerns: “What they really said is…we’re going to wait ‘til you sue us before we deal with these concerns,”

The City of Long Beach filed a lawsuit on June 5th against the City of Los Angeles and BNSF Railway to stop the Southern California International Gateway project, according to the Long Beach Press Telegram.

On June 7th, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has pushed for lower emissions in the Ports of LA and Long Beach, said in a release that it “filed a lawsuit today in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Harbor residents living within the shadow of the largest development on Port of Los Angeles property in more than a decade. The Plaintiffs contend the proposed Southern California International Gateway rail yard project violates the California Environmental Quality Act and the state and federal Civil Rights Acts, and will increase cancer rates, chances of children developing asthma, and add to chronic air pollution plaguing the region.”

The release added; “‘The SCIG project typifies environmental racism,’ said David Pettit, senior attorney with NRDC. ‘This project can be built away from where people live and children go to school, but the City of Los Angeles wants to put it in a low-income minority neighborhood because they think they can get away with it.’”

In a blog posting, BNSF responded by stating: “Contrary to what you may have heard, SCIG results in significant air quality and health risk improvements for residents in the area (including those in West Long Beach) as compared to continuing the existing uses at the site.”

The railroad added that it “has committed more than $100 million for green technologies, including the use of zero-emission electric cranes and ultra-low emitting hostler vehicles on-site; redesigned the entrance to the facility away from neighborhoods; committed to begin requiring LNG (liquefied natural gas) trucks to serve the facility upon its opening, with this commitment reaching 90% LNG or equivalent emission trucks by 2026; and agreed to limit truck travel to designated industrial routes, tracked with GPS.”

BNSF says it “has committed to create a local jobs training program and offer priority hiring for new jobs to qualified local job applicants. BNSF has signed a Project Labor Agreement worth $255 million with the Building and Construction Trades Council that will result in approximately 1,500 jobs per year during construction. By 2036, IHS Global Insight forecasts the facility will create 22,000 new direct and indirect jobs in Southern California, including 14,000 new direct and indirect jobs in Los Angeles.”

It’s hard to say wheher there is a real right or wrong iin proposed rail plans. However, what might be lost in the dust up is the impact the mega on-dock-rail projects have on the design of future conttainer terminals. Answering the question of how to handle the loading and discharge of container vessels ranging from 9,000-20,000 teus in size is difficult, yet the ships are already entering service. Certainly mega ships need to be matched to mega landside infra-structure. How that supporting landside infrastructure is built and utilized is less certain and for the moment Southern California is the labratory for determining the future of intermodal traffic in North America and possibly the world.

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American Journal of Transportation