Breathing Room: Economic Downturn at Ports Provides an Opportunity to Rethink Railyard Projects

The LA Times and the Cunningham Report recently reported that cargo projections at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are down--way down.  The Times stated that at the Port of Long Beach, "trade volumes have been knocked back all the way to 2003 levels . . . wiping out all of the trade gains recorded during the boom years of 2004 through 2007."  Indeed, while the ports' previous cargo forecasts predicted that the ports would reach capacity (43 million TEUs) by 2023, the ports are now revising their predictions, concluding that they won't reach full capacity until more than a decade later-until 2035.

This is significant because any delay in reaching capacity calls into question the purpose and need for various port expansion projects.  For instance, a 2006 study jointly conducted by both ports concluded that off-dock railyards were needed ASAP because "the demand for off-dock railyards will outstrip the existing capacity . . . in the 2010 or 2015 timeframe."  (The study indicated that if the ports had 0% growth, capacity would be reached by 2015; at 3% growth, capacity would be reached by 2010).  This study, in many ways provided the justification for two highly controversial railyard projects located in communities near the port:  the Southern California International Gateway Project (SCIG) and expansion of the existing Union Pacific intermodal facility (UP Expansion).  But times have changed.  Unfortunately, however, the ports' mantra of "build more now" has not.

Instead of justifying new projects on the basis that the ports are bursting at the seams with cargo, now, the ports say that new infrastructure projects are necessary to remain competitive--to keep existing customers, and attract new business.  As a result, it seems difficult to envision any scenario where the ports would not rationalize the need for more concrete.

The proposed SCIG and UP Expansion projects are hotly contested because they create an incompatible land use problem where highly industrial, highly polluting activities occur right next to homes, schools, daycare centers, parks and churches.  USC and UCLA have documented especially high levels of pollution near sources of traffic (such as freeways and railyards).  And USC's studies show that children living near heavy traffic pollution are more likely to have asthma and reduced lung function.  Adults are at risk, too.  The California Air Resources Board found that railyards--including the UP facility--create elevated cancer risks for nearby residents because of all of the polluting trains and trucks that visit those facilities. 

Despite these risks, the SCIG project is proposed to be built within one mile of eight different schools and at least one daycare center.  Air pollution samples taken from a school near the proposed site--Hudson Elementary--indicate that the children attending that school already breathe some of the dirtiest air in the region.  An earlier LA Times piece reported that a volunteer group of mothers conducted traffic counts next to Hudson with USC researchers, tallying 580 big rig trucks in an hour.  To make matters worse, the proposed SCIG site is in close proximity to the existing UP facility (which the ports want to expand) and all of its industrial operations.  The UP facility is within a quarter mile from a large residential area and several schools, including Hudson Elementary and Stephen's Jr. High School. 

Times are tough and everyone is scrambling to find a way to rebuild the economy.  But if any two projects should give Angelinos cause for concern, it's the proposed SCIG and UP Expansion.  The downturn in the economy provides an opportunity to rethink, at the very least, the timing of these projects and more importantly, cleaner alternatives that could take their place.  Such alternatives must avoid building railyards in neighborhoods.  The risks are simply too high, and we all deserve better.