…a Freeway Isn’t the Only Way
By Justin Gerdes | Photography and additional reporting by Leila Dee Dougan
On September 27, 2002, all 29 ports on the West Coast of the United States were shuttered. During the subsequent 10-day lockout, triggered by a contract dispute between port owners and the longshoremen’s union, an estimated $6.2 billion in imports were disrupted at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
With no deliveries at the ports and no need for trucks to haul away cargo, commuters on area freeways were beneficiaries of a fleeting congestion reprieve. The Southern California Association of Governments determined that average traffic speeds along the 710 Freeway increased by 67% during the lockout [PDF, p. 59-62]. The message to policymakers was clear: Get heavy-duty trucks off the freeways.
Global trade has not been kind to the 710 Freeway. Constructed more than a half-century ago to provide a convenient south-north connection from Long Beach to the San Gabriel Valley, the freeway is now a battered workhorse, one of the primary means of moving goods from the world’s third largest port complex, the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, to rail yards south of downtown Los Angeles and the warehouses of the Inland Empire further east.
Much of the problem comes down to trucks. According to Caltrans [PDF], 75% of all San Pedro Bay ports-related freight movements are made by truck for at least one segment. About 40% of the shipping containers leaving the ports are loaded onto trains via on- or off-dock rail; of this 40%, just 25% leave via on-dock rail.
Unless means are found to re-direct more containers from trucks to rail, it can reasonably be assumed that the 710 Freeway will absorb increased truck trips commensurate with the expected growth in cargo traffic. Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) expect freight moved through the ports to reach 43 million TEUs in 2035. (Each TEU is equivalent to one 20-foot-cargo container.)
Forty-three million TEUs, the agencies say [PDF, p.3], represents a “conservative basis” for travel demand forecasting on the freeway. The number is nearly triple the pre-Great Recession peak recorded in 2007. The Port of Los Angeles, meanwhile, says the number of truck trips per day on the I-710 could jump from 47,000 to 100,000 in 2025 [PDF, p.6].
Caltrans and Metro use the projected growth in cargo traffic at the ports, along with expected regional population growth, to justify proposals, currently under study, to add capacity to the 710 Freeway. In the south, the agencies’ plan could involve widening an 18-mile stretch of the I-710 to accommodate up to 10 general purpose lanes and a separated four-lane freight corridor from Long Beach to SR-60. In the north, where the 710 Freeway empties into surface streets in Alhambra, the agencies’ intentions are less clear but may include the construction of a 4.5-mile freeway tunnel to connect SR-710 to the 210 Freeway.
Community Alternative 7
The alternatives presented for what is known as the I-710 Corridor Project by Caltrans and Metro in a draft environmental document released in June 2012 were rebuffed by the Region 9 office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as an alliance of local advocacy groups known as the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice. The comment letters EPA sends to agencies in response to project environmental impact statements are usually written in an anodyne language intended to facilitate interagency cooperation–not so the I-710 Corridor Project comment letter.
EPA was prepared to assign two alternatives, ones that would widen the 710 Freeway to include up to 10 general purpose lanes and a separated four-lane freight corridor for conventional heavy-duty trucks, the worst possible rating. The designation would have prompted intervention by the White House Council on Environmental Quality if either option were selected without changes as the preferred alternative in the final EIS.
Among the litany of concerns raised by the EPA were “major flaws” with the air quality modeling employed and need for Caltrans and Metro to “fully justify the elimination of previous alternatives” that would have addressed environmental and community impacts and to confirm the validity of travel demand estimates. “If a high estimate of trucks and autos are assumed to exist with the No Build Alternative,” EPA said, “it could artificially inflate the benefit of the Build Alternatives.”
EPA and the Coalition urged Caltrans and Metro to drop plans to add general purpose lanes to the freeway and to include a freight corridor using zero-emissions technology. Caltrans and Metro subsequently decided to recirculate the draft environmental impact report for further study. The revised environmental document is scheduled for release in fall 2014.
“One of the key things they’re going to do is change the alternatives they consider,” Adrian Martinez, staff attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, told me. “They’ve moved away from some of the more concerning alternatives from an environmental and environmental justice standpoint. Technically all alternatives will have these zero-emission lanes.”
Martinez was a member of the legal team that prepared the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice’s 832-page comment letter [PDF] on the I-710 Corridor Project Draft EIR/EIS. The letter presented the Coalition’s preferred alternative for the corridor, Community Alternative 7. The Coalition had convened three community workshops to explain the alternatives under consideration, describe the environmental review process, and solicit input for alternatives.
The outcome of that process, Community Alternative 7, includes a mandatory zero-emissions freight corridor reserved for heavy-duty trucks; no expansion of the general purpose lanes; enhanced public transportation in the corridor; restoration of the Los Angeles River, which shadows the 710 Freeway; improvements to encourage walking and biking; a local hire provision; and free public transit for corridor residents during construction.
“If you look at the 710 corridor cities,” says Angelo Logan, Executive Director, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, “they are probably some of the most public transit poor cities there are. We hear from community members frequently that the bus system is falling short in being able to provide folks with the ability to get to where they need to go on public transit.”
“One community member told us that to get from Paramount to Long Beach [11 miles] in a bus, it takes them three or four hours,” Jessica Tovar, Project Manager, Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, told me. “She said it didn’t make sense to take public transportation so she was being forced into the freeway, without wanting to get on the freeway.”
The Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice pressed Caltrans and Metro to formally consider Community Alternative 7 during the environmental review process. “Our confidence that they are truly analyzing it in its entirety–well, I should say we have no confidence,” says Angelo Logan. “They have included some parts of it, and some things that resemble Community Alternative 7, but we do not believe they are including it in its entirety as part of the design of the project.”
The Coalition attempted to force the agencies’ hand via legislation. Senate Bill 811, authored by State Senator Ricardo Lara, would have compelled Caltrans to study Community Alternative 7, in its entirety. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill [PDF] on October 11, 2013, explaining that “statutorily requiring the project environmental impact report to consider specified mitigation measures that exceed the project’s scope is a precedent I don’t wish to establish.”
Asked about the fate of SB 811 a few weeks before the veto, Angelo Logan said the bill “codifies a decision from about 14 local cities, a unanimous decision, to include Community Alternative 7 as an alternative in its entirety in this particular project. If the governor doesn’t sign it, and Caltrans does not analyze Community Alternative 7, it’s an example of the state trying to dictate to the local jurisdictions what’s good for them when it should be a local jurisdiction’s decision on how to move forward on a project that they are going to be mostly impacted by.”
“Litigation is always an option. I think this is an important enough project that if the agency gets it wrong the community groups are going to stand up in court and try to get justice,” says Adrian Martinez.
Multiple projects are either being studied or will soon be demonstrated that could directly influence the I-710 Corridor Project. The BNSF Railway wants to build a new $500-million rail yard, the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG), four miles north of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles on land just west of the 710 Freeway and adjacent to the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile freight rail line, opened in 2002, that connects the ports to rail yards near downtown Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles City Council approved SCIG in May 2013. Soon after, the City of Long Beach, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Natural Resources Defense Council, several trucking companies, and the Long Beach Unified School District filed suit to delay the project citing California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) violations. The Long Beach Unified School District noted that one of its schools was just 210 feet from the SCIG site.
SCIG backers contend that the project will relieve congestion on the I-710 by eliminating the need for over 1.3 million truck trips annually [PDF, p. 26] on the freeway. Shippers will choose to offload containers at the SCIG, with its easy access to the Alameda Corridor, proponents argue, rather than have trucks haul containers on the 710 Freeway 20 miles north to the BNSF Hobart Yard in the city of Commerce.
Debate over the SCIG illustrates both the difficulty of forecasting future cargo demand and the need to analyze port-related infrastructure projects in relation to one another. A report [PDF] published by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute in January 2012, found that “under a low-growth scenario, it appears that the additional capacity from the SCIG is not needed,” and that even with unexpectedly high growth, the need to consider SCIG is likely 15 years away. Meanwhile, in its I-710 Corridor Project comment letter, the EPA notes [PDF, p. 5] that Caltrans and Metro did not account for operation of the SCIG in its environmental analysis and travel demand forecasting for an expanded 710 Freeway.
Immediately west of the Alameda Corridor rail yard and SCIG project site, the South Coast Air Quality Management District plans to construct [PDF] a $13.5-million demonstration zero-emissions freight corridor in partnership with Siemens. Plans call for Siemens to deploy a catenary truck technology called eHighway, which the company has already demonstrated in Germany, along a one-mile stretch of Alameda Street in the city of Carson.
Siemens and its partner, Volvo, will prepare two diesel hybrid electric heavy-duty trucks to operate on the system. Under a separate $3.2-million contract, TransPower will deliver one CNG hybrid electric truck and one battery electric truck to be tested during the demonstration. When connected to an overhead catenary wire via a pantograph, trucks will operate in zero-emissions electric mode.
Permitting and CEQA review is expected to take up to 18 months, construction an additional 12 months, and the one-year demonstration to occur during 2016. Upon successful demonstration of the concept, SCAQMD says that the zero-emissions catenary system could be expanded [PDF, p. 4] to projects such as the freight corridor proposed for the 710 Freeway.
David Alba believes his company, GRID (Green Rail/Intelligent Development) Logistics Inc., can deliver a freight movement solution that goes well beyond what the SCIG or a zero-emissions freight corridor on the 710 Freeway could manage. Alba’s aim is to achieve much of what the 2002 West Coast ports lockout did: getting port-related trucks off the Greater Los Angeles freeway network. (Disclosure: The editor of this series, Rick Risemberg, is an unpaid officer of GRID Logistics.)
Policymakers tend to focus on one mode of transport (trains or trucks or ships) or one potential solution (I-710 Corridor Project or the SCIG) at a time rather than think strategically about a comprehensive solution, says Alba. “This is a 50-year-old system that really hasn’t changed, other than by scale.”
Part of the problem, from a logistics perspective, is that shipping companies, in pursuit of fuel savings, have demanded ship builders put to sea ever-larger ships. Eight cranes are now used to service one of these ultra-large container ships, says Alba, GRID’s co-founder and president. Each crane is responsible for three bays, and each bay holds 750 containers. Crane operators must unload and load each bay before moving to next. “That’s why it takes almost a week to load and unload these vessels,” he says.
Alba wants to build a more efficient on-dock platform called the SuperDock, a transfer, storage, and sorting module that would load containers directly onto trains. Trains would then be routed to the Alameda Corridor, which is running at 60% of capacity, says Alba, or to GRID’s Freight Pipeline, an $11.5-billion, 152-mile-long electrified rail tunnel network connecting the ports to feeder terminals located where warehouses are already concentrated across the Los Angeles basin.
The Freight Pipeline would run underground, beneath existing freeways, river channels, or power transmission rights of way. Alba says the pipeline has more in common with a water project than a subway. No human operators would be necessary in the 15- to 20-foot-wide tunnels, reducing the need for investment in emergency and safety infrastructure, lighting, and ventilation. “It’s a man-less drone roller coaster for containers,” says Alba, or basically “storm drains with tracks.”
GRID Logistics would operate under a concession granted by the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, earning a consolidated fee to move containers from the ports to its inland feeder terminals via its pipeline.
About 23 miles north of the ports, SR-710 ends at Valley Blvd. in the Alhambra. Community opposition over several decades has prevented Caltrans from extending SR-710 4.5 miles north to the 210 Freeway.
In January 2013, Metro released an analysis that identified alternatives to be studied in a draft environmental impact report/environmental impact statement slated for release in spring 2014. The alternatives include bus rapid transit, with service between East Los Angeles and Pasadena; a light-rail line, with service between East Los Angeles and Pasadena and a connection to the Metro Gold Line; and a 4.5-mile freeway tunnel connecting the SR-710 to I-210.
Metro’s initial $5.6-billion [PDF, p.3] concept [PDF] envisions two-level, twin-bored freeway tunnels with four lanes in each direction. In a May 2013 memo [PDF], Metro announced it was also studying a single-bore tunnel variation and that “all freeway tunnel variations will be evaluated with and without truck restrictions.”
The proposed freeway tunnel has galvanized opponents, including an advocacy group called the No 710 Action Committee, who are convinced that Metro has already decided on the freeway tunnel as its preferred alternative in order to facilitate the movement of containers on trucks up the 710 Freeway. Written testimony by No 710 representative Jan SooHoo submitted to the Metro Board in October 2013 documents repeated instances in which Metro officials, or officials with partner agencies, have advocated for the freeway tunnel, with no mention of other alternatives, at public events.
Opponents also note a May 2009 draft study [PDF, p. 41], commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments but never finalized, in which Iteris consultants found that 50% of the 18 trucking companies surveyed indicated they would use a 710 extension. (Metro declined to make officials available to be interviewed for this series.)
Metro insists no decision has been made to build a tunnel and that all options are being scrutinized equally.
“I want to be very clear about something and I’m going to put it in large, bold letters to emphasize my point: DESPITE WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD FROM A FRIEND, NEIGHBOR, POLITICIAN, PERSON IN LINE AT THE COFFEE SHOP, ETC., NO DECISIONS HAVE BEEN MADE BY METRO OR ANY OTHER GOVERNMENT AGENCY TO BUILD ANYTHING. INCLUDING A TUNNEL.” (Steve Hymon, Editor, The Source, the Metro blog, wrote on August 17, 2012.)
Diane DuBois said much the same during “Metro Live,” a televised call-in show that aired on October 17, 2013. “There’s a lot of talk and a lot of concern about tunnels at the SR-710. We’re studying the project at this point and time,” said DuBois, Metro Board Chair and City of Lakewood councilmember. “Shame on us if we don’t take the time and do the due diligence to find out if there should be a project there and, if so, which will work best for the people who live there and for the traffic issues. We’re looking at four or five alternatives, not just looking at a tunnel. We have to cost them all out.”
“The irony is that the tunnel probably couldn’t be feasible if you don’t allow trucks in there,” Ara Najarian, Metro Board director and City of Glendale councilmember, told me. “It’s turning out to be just a truck route where, again, we’re encouraging trucks to be on the roadways where we should be finding ways for them to facilitate freight to an inland port, whether it’s going to be in Lancaster or Palmdale, some of the northern areas, or even further out east. And then let the distribution model begin if you need short-term, mid-term hauls.”
“The no-tunnel side is open to multiple solutions,” says Anthony Portantino, a former California State Assembly member from La Cañada Flintridge. “The frustration here is that the activist community wants to engage in a real planning process where there is: How do we solve the problem? Everyone wants to solve the local and the regional transportation issues, but the frustration has been the advisory committee was stacked with [tunnel] proponents, and all of the community outreach committee meetings are really PR efforts to sell the tunnel. So it didn’t really engage in a What’s-in-the-best-interest-of-the-region discussion. What’s affordable? It’s all been smoke and mirrors to promote the tunnel.”
South Pasadena Mayor Richard Schneider told me he’d like to see a combination of bus rapid transit or light-rail, cycling improvements, and traffic management modifications such as lane widening, intersection alignment, and traffic signalization. “It would be much lower cost and it would actually accomplish something within a reasonable period of time. And a lot of things we can get done in a year or two, if we had the funds for them.”
He adds: “We’d like to see the Gold Line extended east to Ontario and west to the Burbank area so then you have a real network of rail lines where people can get to the airports on the rail without having to drive. What we need are several north-south light-rail lines that connect these east-west lines. Then we have a grid. Then we can really get around Los Angeles County without a car. That’s what everybody really wants to do.”