The Los Angeles Harbor Commission certified the final environmental impact report for BNSF’s proposed Southern California International Gateway, a rail transfer facility that could be one of the most significant intermodal rail projects of the past 25 years.
However, the SCIG must still be approved by the Los Angeles City Council, and if it passes that hurdle, the Natural Resources Defense Council is almost certain to fight the project in court.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are crying out for more near-dock rail lift capacity. Although the nation’s largest port complex continues to expand on-dock rail capacity, the ports see on-dock’s share topping out at 35 percent because on-dock facilities do not generate enough intermodal volume to serve secondary and tertiary locations in the U.S.
Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, which was opened in 1986, handles the transfer of intermodal containers from the ports to UP’s trains serving the eastern half of the country.
BNSF’s international intermodal containers must be trucked more than 20 miles on the congested I-710 freeway to the rail carrier’s Hobart yard near downtown Los Angeles. This arrangement is inefficient, costly and environmentally damaging to the region.
BNSF plans to build the 185-acre SCIG adjacent to UP’s ICTF only four miles from the harbor, with completion projected for 2016. Traffic will increase from 570,800 20-foot container units to 2.8 million TEUs by 2035.
BNSF has pledged to build the greenest intermodal facility in the U.S., with electric cranes and the latest Tier 3 locomotives. BNSF will phase in even cleaner Tier 4 locomotives when that technology becomes available on the commercial market. BNSF will allow admission to only the cleanest diesel-powered drayage trucks with 2010-model or newer engines and clean natural gas powered trucks.
“SCIG will establish a new national benchmark for the development of such facilities in California and across the country, as it will be the cleanest rail facility in history,” said Matthew Rose, BNSF’s chairman and chief executive officer.
According to the NRDC, the proposed SCIG will be green, but not green enough. David Pettit, NRDC’s senior attorney and head of the organization’s Southern California air project, said that because the proposed site is located close to an elementary school, a high school and a residential area in west Long Beach, a greater commitment must be made to reduce harmful diesel particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions.
Pettit said the truck and rail traffic volumes would be such that federal Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards will be exceeded. California’s local Air Quality Management District therefore opposes the project as it now stands, Pettit said.
The end game of the NRDC is not to kill the SCIG project, as some transportation industry sources charge, but rather to force commitment to implementing the latest pollution-reduction technologies, and to continue advancing as technology improves.
The first goal should be to mandate the use of electric trucks for the four-mile journey from the ports to the SCIG in order to achieve truck zero emissions, Pettit said. Electric trucks could be phased in, but BNSF and the port must commit to a timeline, he said.
On the rail side, NRDC is looking for a more aggressive move to Tier IV locomotives for line-haul operations. Tier IV technology is advancing to the point where it should be commercially available by the projected opening of the facility in 2016, Pettit said.
Environmental and community activists continue to draw a nexus between the SCIG, when it is opened, and continued operation of the Hobart yard. Hobart could be used for international cargo that is transloaded into domestic 53-foot containers, as well as for purely domestic origin and destination traffic.
With domestic intermodal volumes in recent years growing faster than international intermodal, primarily because of a diversion of costly over-the-road freight to intermodal rail, it is logical to assume the Hobart yard will continue to have a life.
Pettit said the EIR ignores this fact by decoupling the SCIG from Hobart. The EIR should, however, project what percentage of the Hobart traffic will originate as international freight that is transloaded into domestic containers, and it should calculate the impact of those numbers into the study, he said.
The proposed SCIG has the Port of Long Beach in a bind. Long Beach intermodal traffic will benefit just as much as traffic moving through the Port of Los Angeles. However, the SCIG site is located in an industrial section of Los Angeles, but is immediately adjacent to the border community of west Long Beach, which is highly residential.
For that reason, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster lambasted the EIR at a public hearing this week and called for a cleaner SCIG.
Pettit said NRDC, which has forced revision of a number of high-profile projects at the ports over the past 15 years, will wait and see what the Los Angeles City Council does with the EIR. The council, which is made up of elected officials, must approve long-term port leases such as the 50-year SCIG lease.
If the city council approves the EIR as is, NRDC will initiate litigation to force changes, Pettit said. Another possibility is for Los Angeles and the BNSF to agree to timelines for implementation of stricter emissions-reduction technologies, he said.