Though the City of Los Angeles gave Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway its blessing to move forward with a highly controversial railyard project planned adjacent to west Long Beach, a representative with the railroad company said the project likely won’t move forward this year as litigation over potential environmental impacts continues.
A spokesperson for BNSF Railway confirmed with the Signal Tribune this week that the $500-million project, which received approval from the Los Angeles City Council in May 2013 despite appeals from Long Beach and other parties, would remain on hold at least through year’s end even though the railroad company has a right to start construction.
“We do have a permit [and] we could begin construction, but that’s not the plan at this time,” said BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent in a phone interview. “We don’t have plans to start construction this year.”
Last year, the City of Long Beach and six other parties, including the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and BNSF over the project, citing concerns over an environmental-impact report (EIR) conducted by the Port of Los Angeles, which owns a 153-acre site where the railyard would be located.
For more than a decade, BNSF has been planning to build a near-dock railyard facility, called a Southern California International Gateway (SCIG), in order to load cargo containers (from trucks onto rail lines) closer to port docks, which would allow the railroad and the Port to increase capacity and efficiency.
The state-of-the-art facility would be located on property currently occupied by various trucking and warehouse companies, bounded by Sepulveda Boulevard, Pacific Coast Highway, the Dominguez Channel and the Terminal Island Freeway. The railyard would ultimately displace the existing tenants. Kent said a settlement with at least one of the tenants has so far been reached.
However, environmentalists and Long Beach city officials, including former 7th District Long Beach Councilmember James Johnson, have asserted that the Port of LA’s EIR is flawed and that the project as currently proposed would increase health risks and air pollution in the community, closely impacting west Long Beach schools, Villages at Cabrillo homeless shelter and local neighborhoods.
The Port of LA and BNSF, however, defend the EIR’s findings, maintaining that the project would actually decrease pollution emissions in the long-term and improve air quality by taking diesel-burning trucks off the freeway and adding new environmentally friendly infrastructure, such as all-electric cranes and requirements for trucks to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG).
BNSF officials say the company plans to spend $100 million on “green” technology while donating $2 million to the Ports for technological-advancement projects.
The litigation is one of the first orders of business for the newly elected Long Beach City Council, which conducted a closed-session meeting on the lawsuit earlier this month. After taking office, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia vowed personally to improve the City’s relations with the City of Los Angeles.
During a meeting of the Long Beach Central Project Area Council, Inc. (CPAC) last Thursday, Aug. 7 at Queens Wharf Restaurant, also known as Berth 55, in the Port of Long Beach, newly elected 7th District Councilmember Roberto Uranga dodged questions from community members about the litigation, stating that he was advised by the city attorney to not speak about the lawsuit, calling it a “gag order.”
However, the councilmember did say he hopes the lawsuit won’t create too much “backlash” from other parties, adding that he foresees an eventual positive outcome.
“It’s moving forward and that’s all I can say,” Uranga said. “It’s in litigation. There are some items that are being discussed, and we shared with all the litigants. And then, we’ll take it from there. My hope would be it stays amongst that group, that hopefully we won’t get too much flack and backlash from other groups that aren’t part of the lawsuit … I’m sure that good things will come from it.”
LaDonna DiCamillo, BNSF executive director of state government affairs, gave a brief overview of the project and answered questions during the CPAC meeting. However, she too told the crowd of about 30 people that she couldn’t discuss the litigation, adding that the City of Long Beach “took a position to litigate.”
DiCamillo, who last year was installed as board chair of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the railroad company began looking into the project as early as 2000 but hasn’t found a site within the Port long or narrow enough for the railyard other than the proposed site.
“We’ve looked at other properties in the Port area, [but] there’s nothing long enough to accommodate what we need to do,” she said.
DiCamillo said on-dock rail, which would load containers onto rail lines directly near terminals instead of further inland near communities, would be BNSF’s preferred option, but sufficient rail infrastructure has yet to be built. In addition, she said 28 terminal customers and the Port prefer loading containers off dock so as to not have cargo building up between shipments.
Though some 8,000 trucks per day is expected to be added to local highways in coming years, according to previous reports, DiCamillo stated that additional trucks will come whether the railyard is built or not. Currently, most cargo is taken up the I-710 Freeway to BNSF’s rail facility in Commerce, she said.
The goal with the new railyard, DiCamillo said, would be to, instead, utilize the Alameda Corridor, an interconnected rail line system, to make goods movement more efficient and reduce approximately 1.5 million truck trips per year from the I-710 Freeway.
“If we don’t handle this cargo at the proposed facility, we will continue to take it up the 710 Freeway to our facility in Commerce,” DiCamillo said. She added that BNSF and the Port analyzed 25 different intersections, and the EIR found “no significant increase or decrease” in traffic at those intersections.
However, some residents said that BNSF’s notion that adding a railyard facility would improve air quality in the area is “disingenuous.”
John Cross, a west Long Beach environmental activist and vocal opponent of the project, said the railyard may reduce pollution along the I-710 Freeway but the increase in 1.5-million truck trips per year coming to the facility would likely increase pollution in west Long Beach and other local communities.
“Explain to me how 1.5 million trucks is going to be cleaner,” he said during a question and answer portion of the meeting, adding that estimates show that the current operations bring in only about 300,000 truck trips to the site per year.
“There are some major flaws with this project, and if you live on the other side of the LA River and you think you’re not going to be affected by it, your wrong,” Cross said, adding that the best option would be for BNSF to find a location in the Port that’s not near neighborhoods, schools and a homeless shelter.
Other speakers touched on potential mitigation measures.
Brian Ulaszewski, an urban-planning consultant and founder of nonprofit City Fabrick, gave an overview on a proposal to create a “buffer,” including a possible park space with vegetation, to create separation between the community and the railyard facility.
The project, which he calls “The Yard,” would be a “proactive solution” to help mitigate impacts of the project, similar to the Waterfront Park in Wilmington, which was mitigation paid for by a terminal customer that expanded in the Port of LA, he said.
“There [is] precedent for what we’re talking about,” Ulaszewski said. “There is a solution out there that can include SCIG even in this proposed location… It’s still not good, but it’s better. What we’re talking about is trying to get to a closer solution.”
He said the buffer project could move forward with SCIG or with out it.
DiCamillo said BNSF has offered to pay for installing a wall and trees to block the community from the facility, however an agreement would have to be reached with the City of Long Beach.
Westside activist John Taeleifi said the community should be open to adding a buffer as a possible solution to environmental and health impacts the rail facility may cause, adding that, even if the City of Long Beach and other plaintiffs are successful in stopping the project from moving forward, something else might return in its place.
“We all know that something will be put there, whether it be down the road or somewhere nearby,” he said. “The time will come and the impacts of whatever will be placed there will come to be realized. Myself and many of my residents, concerned and engaged members in west Long Beach, want to be able to ask, request and demand that we form some kind of collaborative effort to place something to buffer the impacts that are going to come.”