Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Alameda Corridor: Big Project, Big Results

By Mark Edward Nero

It was one of the most massive and ambitious transportation projects in Southern California in decades.

It cost $2.4 billion, took hundreds of workers five years to construct, but was somehow finished on time and under budget.

It involved the use of a million cubic yards of concrete, 150 million pounds of rebar and 2,200 concrete struts, each weighing about 50,000 pounds.

And perhaps most amazingly, it managed to turn two rival businesses – the Union Pacific and BNSF railways – into staunch allies and venture partners.

The “it” is the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile freight rail expressway linking rail yards near downtown Los Angeles to the ports of LA and Long Beach. The rail line, which is named after its Alameda Street route, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Stretching through eight cities, the corridor is a series of bridges, underpasses, overpasses and street improvements that separate freight trains from passenger rail and street traffic.

“It’s great for our ports in terms of providing a really efficient link from the harbor areas to the downtown rail yards,” Mike Christensen, the Port of LA’s deputy director in charge of development, said of the Corridor. “And it does it in a way that avoids this really, really potentially horrible interaction with the transportation networks that the old rail network would have exposed us to.”

The origin of the project dates back nearly 30 years. It was in the 1970s when, facing increases in cargo crossing their docks, the ports of LA and Long Beach began to study ways to make comprehensive rail and highway improvements to upgrade the efficiency of cargo movements.

But it wasn’t until 1989 that the two competing cities and ports came together in a joint-powers authority to design and build a rail cargo expressway. Construction began in April 1997.

When it opened on April 15, 2002, the Corridor’s main purpose was to relieve the bottleneck of cargo at the ports, mainly through consolidating four railroad branch lines. The corridor was designed to carry up to about a third of the ports’ overall traffic volume.

And during the decade of its existence, the rail expressway has accomplished its mission, according to John Doherty, CEO of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, or ACTA, the joint-powers authority formed in 1989 by the cities and ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“I think the Alameda Corridor’s an outright success, it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do, namely provide an opportunity to move more and more containers that have national destinations from on-dock rail facilities without impact to the surrounding communities,” Doherty said.

“In terms of everything it was put in place to do, it’s carrying the (one third) percentage of the ports’ volumes it had intended to carry,” said Doherty, while mitigating the effect of what trains every day would have had on the 200 grade crossings that the railroads used to encounter. “The backup of traffic at those 200 grade crossings would have been untenable.”
It also would have been untenable elsewhere within the transportation chain, Christensen said.

“When the corridor went in service in 2002, we were at kind of an accelerating pace of growth,” he explained. “Over the next years, particularly between 2002 and 2008, (the Corridor) was able to soak up that growth that, had it not been there, we would have been in really bad shape. It took not only the growth of traffic coming across the docks, but it also allowed us to grow our on-dock rail loadings.”

Christensen said that had the corridor not been built, the traffic bottleneck would have continued to worsen, because the on-dock intermodal loadings would have stayed on the existing congested rail lines.

“I think what you would have seen … you would have seen the rail lines getting close to capacity, but also massive amounts of traffic blockages as those mile-and-a-half trains run along the line,” he said. “I think you would have seen a rail system that would have been groaning under the weight of the rail traffic that emanated from the port, particularly the on-dock rail yards.”

Before the corridor was in operation, there were about 30 to 35 train trips daily from the ports to the rail yards, with each train traveling at about 15 miles per hour. But according to Doherty, the average is now about 40 trains per day traveling about 30 MPH.

That said, the current 40 train trips daily is actually down from the 55 a day that was common during the first few years of the corridor’s existence. Doherty said one of the reasons why is increased efficiency.

“Railroads over the past several years have been running their trains far more efficiently than they used to. The average container train on the corridor right now is close to 330 containers per train, whereas back in 2002, 2003, when we first opened, there were 230 containers per train,” he said.

“So the railroads have significantly lengthened their trains; obviously you’re going to be moving fewer trains, but more cargo,” he explained. “Trains now are running 8,000 or 8,500 feet long, whereas they were running 6,000 to 6,500 feet long 10 years ago when we first started.”

But another and perhaps larger, reason for the decrease in daily train trips, is the global recession of 2008-2009, which for a time resulted in an estimated 25 percent decrease in traffic volume at the ports, and therefore a corresponding drop in corridor traffic.

“As go the ports, so goes ACTA,” Doherty said.

“With consumer spending down because of the recession, imports have been off considerably. So we’re going through the throes of that now,” he explained. “The ports have seemed to have reached bottom, and then started to climb. They climbed considerably in 2010 and flattened in 2011. It’s expected to stay a little bit on the flat side in 2012, as well.”

The lingering effects of the recession could be felt at the port complex and on the corridor for some time to come.

“It is going to take four, five, six, maybe seven years perhaps, to climb out of the recession, just to get back to where we were,” Doherty predicted. “We’re in the middle of a comeback now, but it’s all going to be predicated on how many false starts we have on the economic recovery.”

In addition to a sluggish economy, another possible factor in the Corridor’s future traffic volumes is the expansion of the Panama Canal. Under the expansion, the canal’s capacity is expected to double by 2014. If this happens, it would mean larger ships that can’t currently travel through the canal would be able to do so in the future, and might not be so reliant on West Coast ports as far as the import and export of goods moving to and from the US East Coast.

This is of great interest to ACTA because a large portion of cargo imported through LA/Long Beach and moved along the Corridor to regional rail yards is headed for the East Coast, Midwest and other destinations outside of Southern California.

“There’s a big wait now in terms of what impact the Panama Canal expansion in 2014 may have, not only on the ports of LA and Long Beach, but on all the West Coast ports,” Doherty said. “People are anxiously awaiting to see whether or not East Coast destinations and distributing lines will send more cargo that would have otherwise come through the West Coast, whether they’ll send that via all-water through the Panama Canal.”

There are various schools of thought regarding the possibility.

“They vary anywhere from virtually no impact to the balance that currently exists, to some saying maybe it’ll have significant consequence,” Doherty said. “We’ll see what the consequences of that are come 2014.”

But ultimately, annual cargo volumes at the ports are expected to more than triple from the current 14 million TEUs over the next few decades, and Doherty said that the Corridor should be able to accommodate that growth.

“We designed the corridor to carry the volume of cargo in support of the ports when they reach their capacity, and that capacity will be 44 million TEUS – even through there’s only 14 million TEUs at the ports now,” he explained. “If the ports do reach the 44 million plateau, which is now forecast for 2035, the Alameda Corridor will be able to successfully handle one third of that cargo.”

The Corridor, which was one of the most expensive and ambitious public works ventures in the US at the time of its opening, is the result of funding through a public-private partnership. Money from the ports – a combined $400 million – paid part of the cost, as did another $400 million in loans from the California Department of Transportation and various other sources. The largest chunk of the money, however, came from $1.1 billion in revenue bonds.

The bonds are being repaid through use fees and container charges, which as of January 2012 range from about $5 to $21 per TEU, depending on various factors, including a container’s size, whether or not it’s loaded, and if it’s a waterborne container.

BNSF and UP are responsible for the fees.

“It’s a great example of public-private partnerships,” Christensen said of the arrangement. “You can’t talk about the success of the Alameda Corridor without really mentioning that this was a deal that was made with the two Class 1 railroads.”

“The fees on containers basically pay the mortgage,” he said. “And as such, they have been great partners and are part of the success story.”

And another part of the story is an upcoming milestone that might go overlooked by many, but should serve as an example of how much of an impact the rail corridor has had.

Doherty pointed out that the corridor expects to hit a particular train milestone right at the 10-year mark.

“We’re approaching 150,000 trains that will have used the corridor since (it was launched in) 2002,” he said. Over ten years, 200 crossings and 150,000 trains makes 30 million traffic interactions removed from the system. Impressive numbers indeed.

Mark Edward Nero has been a professional journalist since 1995 and has covered the maritime shipping industry since 2002, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as a reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.