June 28, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

Alameda Corridor Goes Full-Steam Ahead, but Goods Movement Needs Billions More

After four years of operations, the Alameda Corridor, a 15-mile grade-separated rail line connecting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to Downtown L.A., has assumed a large share of the region's goods movement burden. But much more investment is needed. In the following interview, Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority CEO John Doherty explains how public and private entities must invest many billions more, and how they can use the success of the Alameda Corridor as a model.

John Doherty

The Legislature just approved a $37 billion infrastructure bond package that includes almost $20 billion for transportation-related infrastructure. How will such an investment help meet the Alameda Corridor's-and the region's-present and future goods movement needs?

We've been involved with the region, as many have, over the past 18 months or so trying to come up with a cogent, system-wide approach to moving goods rather than just a project-by-project focus. We're trying to prioritize the projects and put them in a sequence that makes the most sense. We don't want to be building the tenth-most-needed project first and the first-most-needed project last.

The Alameda Corridor, in conjunction with Caltrans, has its eye on one specific project, the SR 47 project, which is in the environmental process now and will be cleared by the end of the year. That happens to be one of the projects that, if prioritized, will play into a system-wide approach instead of a kind of hit-and-miss approach to building infrastructure within the region. Regarding other projects, our core competency at the Alameda Corridor has been the on-time and on-budget delivery of projects, and if drafted by the region we will serve.

Elaborate on how the Alameda Corridor helps meet some of the region's goods movement and congestion challenges.

The Alameda Corridor presents an opportunity that we have to take maximum advantage of. It's very clear that transportation of cargo by rail is a lot cleaner than transportation by truck. We have extra unused capacity that was put in place for 2020 that can get more rail traffic off of trucks. Two of the ways we can do that is, first, to concentrate on a new near-dock facility. And second, to improve on-dock rail loadings. Currently, a lot of truck trips go from the docks to the downtown rail yards before the containers get on rail to leave California. On-dock rail usage has grown about 20 percent per year over the past few years – that's twice the growth rate of the port, so that's a very good thing and it must continue to improve. A new near-dock facility is also going to be necessary because a lot of the containers would be better accommodated at a facility much closer to the ports. A lot of effort will go into coming up with an environmentally friendly location and cleaning up the trucks and other equipment that will go along with that facility.

I think those two efforts will shift truck trips to rail trips and position the Alameda Corridor to continue to provide tremendous benefit to air quality, which it already has. Nearly 5,000 tons of pollutants have been removed by using the Alameda Corridor versus not having constructed it at all. We want to continue to improve that statistic.

In our MIR interview in 2003 you made clear that the Alameda Corridor could help ease congestion for trains going out of state but that it wasn't designed to deal with in-state cargo. With trucks lining up on our freeways, what solution should be considered for in-state mobility, and for the investment of state infrastructure funds on November's ballot?

I think the effort has to focus primarily on cleaning up the trucks. One of the biggest concerns right now is that the environmental community is, rightly, concerned that by building these projects they will enable even more "dirty trucks," if you will, to occupy the freeway and that it will create even more congestion at a future date at a much higher levels of pollution. And that's a rightful concern. We have to be able to build these infrastructure projects at the same time that we work on cleaning up the mobile sources, either by new and better regulations or by trying to accelerate the diesel truck fleet turnover. We have to focus on the simultaneous and consistent advancement of both mobile source cleanups and infrastructure projects that will relieve congestion and improve air quality in the short term and accommodate trade growth-without sacrificing air quality in the long term.

As you mentioned earlier, the Alameda Corridor was completed on-time and under-budget. As voters prepare to invest $37 billion in state infrastructure projects, what lessons does the Alameda Corridor offer?

One of the advantages the Alameda Corridor had and the region should consider in the advancement of the multiple projects that will come out of this bond measure was to focus the effort through a single-purpose entity that is charged simply with the construction and delivery of projects. I'm not saying it has to be the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority – there's a variety of ways to set it up. One of the reasons ACTA was successful was that it had only one objective: to get things done on-time and under-budget. It didn't have the distraction of being an operating entity as well and having a number of other things on its plate.

Another thing we had, as will the bond projects, was dedicated funding. The region has struggled in the past with only partial funding coming through each year, and projects had to be paced based on monies that might be available in the next year. Now with the money earmarked for particular projects, once we go through the competitive application process, we'll have full funding. Consideration should also be given, where appropriate, to the design-build method of project delivery, with which we were very successful. The design-build opportunity is perfect for projects that are fully funded; you can deliver projects one to three years earlier because you're able to overlap the design and construction. Design-build isn't for every project, but many cry out for it.

The other interesting aspect of the Alameda Corridor is the public-private partnership. The bonds include some provisions for leveraging of public and private funds. What potential does this model hold for other infrastructure investments?


There are two types of public private partnerships. One involves outside entities coming into the state, taking a look at some of the opportunities we might have for toll roads and the like and advancing projects almost 100 percent funded with private investment that will have a return to those investors. And that would provide all new money beyond the bond issue. The other type of public-private partnership opportunity with this $20 billion transportation bond is making sure that we establish criteria that's going to leverage other money. $20 billion sounds like a lot of money, but with estimates as high as $200 billion for statewide transportation needs for both new projects and deferred maintenance, $20 billion is just 10 percent. And if that 10 percent is spread uniformly throughout the state, it could get diluted and not be all it could be. Therefore if you require either additional public funds or private funds in order to gain access to the $20 billion in bonds, then $20 billion can turn into $40 billion or even $60 billion. We can't miss that opportunity, and I'm hoping that as the California Transportation Commission develops its criteria that it takes that into account and gives a very high rating to those projects that are applying for money that would also bring additional investment.

Many people have talked about a dedicated truckway-elevated lanes above the 710, for instance-as the only solution to goods movement congestion. From both an engineering and financing standpoint, how realistic is such a proposal?

It's an interesting topic; everyone has a different position on it right now. Speaking for myself, truck lanes throughout the region would represent a tremendous investment, and I think they make more sense in our most densely traveled truck corridor, namely the 710.

The overall 710 project envisions expansion of general-purpose lanes as well as the introduction of truck only lanes. But the truck-only lane portion of that freeway alone would offer tremendous benefit not only for congestion and air quality, because the trucks would flow more smoothly, but also in terms of safety. Isolating the trucks from the freeway traffic makes a lot of sense. You don't have to look at truck lanes as if they won't work unless you build them all the way from the ports to Barstow. I think there are segments within the system for which dedicated truck lanes would make a lot of sense without going into the tremendous commitment of funds that would be necessary to complete a 100-mile system.

Several months ago MTA boardmember David Fleming told MIR that despite the success of the Alameda Corridor, it was simply too short and needs an extension into the Inland Empire. How badly do we need that eastern extension, and are the grade crossing improvements of the Alameda Corridor East sufficient to realize Mr. Fleming's vision?

I think we do need a so-called extension to the Alameda Corridor. Of course, it will be different from our corridor. Whereas our corridor was partially a subterranean corridor through a dense urban area, I think the solution further east is much different. That's because the grade crossings of the Alameda Corridor were on the order of a quarter-mile apart, so it made sense to put the trains below grade and just pass the bridges over the top. To the east, the critical grade crossings are spread farther apart, so they cry out for standard grade separation, which is either a bridge over the tracks or a passage under the tracks. There are over 120 grade crossings in the four counties, and many of them can and should be separated as soon as possible.

The federal application for $900 million under the highway bill came up short. I think the four counties that got together and applied for that money received only $150 million of that request, and split between the four counties,– that hardly builds one grade separation each! Right now, the delay at those crossings is getting intolerable, and it's going to be more intolerable as the train traffic is expected to grow from 120 or 150 trains per day to nearly 400 trains per day over the next 20 years.

The Alameda Corridor is the product of collaboration between the ports the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the communities in between. We've had changes in leadership in L.A. and we'll have a new mayor in Long Beach soon after this interview. What risk do changes in leadership, with term limits and so forth, pose to this collaboration?

Every day I'm seeing people work more closely than they had in the past. Whereas before the efforts of both ports and both cities were focused on the Alameda Corridor by itself, now I see collaborative efforts reaching out to other environmental and infrastructure issues. I think the bond between the two cities and two ports is getting stronger every day. It's already been demonstrated what can be done when all the parties focus on the Alameda Corridor, and I think we're going to see tremendous work from that collaboration as we work on new infrastructure and air quality improvements.

The Southern California Leadership Council and LAEDC have focused on goods movement for the past year, and they have expressed frustration with the state and local media's disinterest in infrastructure and its implications for clean air, mobility, etc. How frustrating is it for you to read stories in the newspaper that do not discuss the need to make these investments intelligently?

It's very frustrating, particularly when it's characterized as if the public doesn't care about it. I think the public does care. The public certainly knows the hazards of sharing the road with freight; it knows the trouble of waiting at grade crossings. The voting population understands that we have to work together to relieve the congestion from which they suffer. I don't think it serves our needs well to characterize it as unimportant. I think if you interviewed commuters one at a time they would fully support anything necessary to improve congestion.


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