Newton: L.A. needs this job generator

If you've wondered why people complain about the difficulty of doing business in Los Angeles, consider the Southern California International Gateway project. BNSF is prepared to invest $500 million to build the gateway, a rail loading yard that would stimulate trade and produce jobs. And yet, for more than seven years, the project has bumped along without being either approved or rejected.

Way back in 2005, the Harbor Department held community meetings to gauge reaction to the proposal, but since then things have been in a holding pattern pending an environmental impact report.

In the meantime, the glacial pace of action on the project has cost the region jobs at a time when they're most needed.

The basics of the project are fairly simple. Today, some ships that dock in the Port of Los Angeles tie up at modern piers and unload their cargo directly onto the rail network. Others, however, tie up at older piers, where the cargo must be loaded onto trucks. The trucks have to haul the containers 24 miles up the 710 Freeway before they can be loaded onto trains. The gateway project would build a loading facility four miles from the port.

The new facility would have numerous benefits. Loading cargo close to the port would eliminate millions of truck trips up and down the 710 Freeway. Moreover, because trains are vastly more fuel efficient than trucks, there would be a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. And then there are jobs: Building the gateway would require about 1,500 workers, and operating it would take hundreds more. The indirect impact of improved transportation and efficiency at the port could produce as many as 22,000 more jobs over the long term.

For most of the neighborhoods abutting the 710, the new facility would be a huge plus: Every train that's loaded at the new facility would take 280 trucks — and the traffic and air pollution they create — off the freeway.

Meanwhile, the people living closest to the project would face some challenges. Building the project would require tearing down the Sepulveda Bridge, and both construction and operation of the new center would create noise and traffic — it would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — for residents who live nearby.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has warned of increased pollution and cancer risk to those residents. David Pettit, director of the NRDC's Southern California Air Program, said the group is still reviewing the draft environmental impact report on the project but is worried about its effect on residents near the port and is "skeptical" that it would result in cleaner air.

The NRDC has a commendable record of environmental protection, but in this case I wonder if, out of concern for those who live nearest to the proposed facility, the group is overlooking the broader environmental benefits to the region.

That would be a mistake. For starters, the residents who live closest are separated from the parcel by the 710 Freeway, so traffic noise and air quality already is not the greatest. Moreover, the 145-acre site is bounded by an oil refinery, two freeways, a rail line and fuel storage tanks, among other things. As the draft environmental impact report notes: "The general area is characterized by heavy industry, goods-handling facilities and port-related commercial uses consisting of warehousing operations, trucking, cargo operations, transloading, container and truck maintenance, servicing and storage, and rail service."

Matthew Rose, chief executive officer of BNSF, does business all over the United States and generally enjoys good relations with the environmental community (a Pew Center on Global Climate Change study found rail to be 12 times more fuel efficient than trucks). He warns, however, that endless review and environmental challenges are impeding growth everywhere, and especially here. "California stands out," he said recently, as we toured the proposed project site. "And Southern California is first in class."

Rose noted that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has championed transportation projects, including passenger rail, as a way to stimulate the local economy. Recently, as he headed off for a meeting with the mayor, Rose pulled no punches about what he intended to say. "I'm going to tell him I've got a project right here in his backyard. Help be its champion."

A Villaraigosa aide told me after the meeting that the mayor hasn't made a decision on whether to support the project because he's waiting for more public input.

But critics have had years to present their concerns. Now it's time for the mayor to lead. The environment stands to gain, and jobs await.

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