Freight rail traffic is growing, but urban conflicts hinder infrastructure expansion

By Bill Holloway

Much of the news surrounding railroads in recent years has focused on the uncertain future of high-speed passenger rail projects and Amtrak’s financial troubles. However, while passenger rail has been on the front page, freight railroads have been thriving. Revenues of the seven largest railroads climbed from $47.8 to $67 billion between 2009 and 2011 as freight railroads made inroads into new markets and captured some consumer goods shipments from the trucking industry, which has struggled with high fuel prices and driver shortages.

Southern California is one of United States’ key freight hubs, with more warehouses and distribution centers than anywhere else in the nation, the San Pedro Bay Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that bring in 40 percent of container imports into the country, and the tremendous amount of truck and rail activity needed to get the goods from the ports to their next destinations. As port volumes have climbed in recent decades, new truck and rail infrastructure has been added to handle the increase. The most ambitious was the $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile series of bridges, under- and overpasses, including a 10-mile trench that eliminated over 200 at-grade railroad crossings to provide an efficient, high-capacity freight rail link between the ports and the transcontinental rail network near downtown LA. Containers from overseas moving on the Corridor are either loaded onto trains directly as they are unloaded from ships at on-dock facilities, or at the existing Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) operated by Union Pacific Railroad five miles north of the ports.

For the last eight years, a fierce debate has raged about BNSF Railway’s proposed Southern California International Gateway (SCIG), a 153-acre truck-to-rail transfer facility, which would lie just south of the ICTF. The SCIG would cut about 20 miles off the current one-way truck trip from the ports to BNSF’s Hobart yard where these containers are now loaded onto trains for the trip east. The construction of the SCIG would allow containers to travel by rail through the Alameda Corridor and connect to the transcontinental railroad lines, significantly reducing total truck traffic and associated emissions.  However, while the SCIG could produce environmental benefits for the LA region as a whole, residents of the Long Beach communities abutting the new facility’s eastern edge are strongly opposed to the plan. Although plans for the SCIG call for low emissions machinery and more stringent emissions requirements for trucks serving the facility, the City of Long Beach and local neighborhood groups claim the project will have a major negative impact on their local air quality and have serious health consequences. The Los Angeles Harbor Commission recently approved the project, but the City of Long Beach has filed a formal appeal to the Los Angeles City Council to stop it.

If railroads are to remain a viable alternative for freight as high gas prices, driver shortages, and roadway congestion hinder trucking, they will need to continue to upgrade or expand facilities to meet the demand. Nevertheless, a satisfactory answer to the thorny question of how to weigh the value of regional economic and environmental benefits against local environmental impacts and environmental justice concerns is likely to remain elusive.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.