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Decision On Proposed BNSF Railyard Expected Early 2013

Latest Environmental Report Provides Fodder For Both Proponents And Opponents Of Controversial Development

By Joshua H. Silavent - Staff Writer

October 23, 2012 - A decision is soon coming on whether Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) can proceed with a proposed $500 million railyard development in the harbor area just west of Long Beach after an updated draft environmental impact report (DEIR) was released in late September that gave new ammunition to both proponents and opponents in a conflict that dates back seven years.

The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners is expected to make its ruling on the project sometime in early 2013. The public comment period ends November 9.

Lena Kent, BNSF director of public affairs, shows off the proposed site for
the Southern California International Gateway railyard. The controversial
project drew hundreds of supporters and opponents to a public meeting in
Wilmington October 18. A decision on the project is expected in early 2013.
(Photograph by the Business Journal’s Thomas McConville)

But a brewing controversy over the latest DEIR reveals that, in many ways, the fight is just beginning.

BNSF’s Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) railyard is intended to provide near-dock capacity for trucks to load cargo containers onto trains for distribution. Currently, trucks transport the containers to a BNSF facility 24 miles from the ports near downtown Los Angeles.

BNSF has identified 156 acres of existing industrial sites in Wilmington for the SCIG railyard, about four miles from harbor docks, between Sepulveda Boulevard on the north, Pacific Coast Highway on the south, the Dominguez Channel on the west and the Terminal Island Freeway on the east. Construction of the railyard would take place from 2013 to 2015, and BNSF would operate it with a 50-year lease, revised from 30 years in the latest DEIR.

BNSF officials said the railyard will eliminate 1.5 million truck trips annually along the I-710, or Long Beach Freeway, resulting in improved air quality and reduced traffic congestion on what is often called the “diesel corridor.”

According to a BNSF press release, “The updated report, which was reissued to reflect updated analysis, confirms that proceeding with the project results in significant air quality and health risk improvements for residents, students, teachers and workers in the area as compared to continuing the existing uses at the site. In fact, SCIG far surpasses the Port of Los Angeles’ health risk goal for new projects and will help provide the cleaner growth the region needs.”

BNSF officials said they would revamp the existing site and use all-electric cranes, low-emission switching locomotives and 2010 or newer trucks to transport cargo between marine terminals and the railyard. In addition, BNSF said that 90 percent of its truck fleet will use liquefied natural gas or produce equivalent emissions by 2026. BNSF also has committed $3 million to fund zero-emission cargo movement research.

HCVT - Certified Public Accountants

“This report validates that building SCIG is the right choice for green growth in Los Angeles,” Matthew K. Rose, BNSF chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

Opponents, however, view BNSF and the latest DEIR with extreme skepticism.

“They’re not going to be cleaner, I don’t care what they say,” said John Cross, president of the West Long Beach Neighborhood Association.

Cross, who lives near the proposed project site, said that the SCIG railyard would simply consolidate air pollution in surrounding neighborhoods rather than dispersing it throughout the region. He points to the fact that several schools, a daycare center, low-income housing for veterans and seniors, and residential homes dot the landscape around the project site as evidence that SCIG is a raw deal for the communities most impacted by it.

“We’re not opposed to putting 250 containers on a train and hauling it up the Alameda corridor,” Cross said. “What we’re opposed to is the location of the railyard.”

SCIG opponents contend that better site locations exist within port property.

“The easier way to do all of this would be to have on-dock rail . . . to build new on-dock facilities instead of near-dock,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of the organization’s Southern California Air Program.

The DEIR indicates that projected increases in containerized shipping at the ports in the coming years will make regional air pollution worse even if the SCIG railyard is built.

“The port has stopped pretending there won’t be negative health impacts,” Pettit said. “I’m not an expert on whether their predictions (of growth) are sound or just wishful thinking. At least they’ve abandoned the ridiculously over-confident projections they had in the last (DEIR).”

The updated DEIR concludes that there is no available land within port property to build on-dock rail facilities, and Pettit concedes that enough land might not be currently available.

“Although the port seems to be able to create new land, by dredging and filling, when they want to,” he added. “But that’s an alternative that doesn’t have a whole lot of discussion in the revised DEIR.”

Competing interests abound with regard to the SCIG railyard, even turning traditional foes into temporary friends.

“It is one of those rare things that the chamber and labor agrees on,” said Randy Gordon, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

BNSF officials said the railyard facility will create 1,500 jobs annually during a three-year build-out phase and has signed a $225 million project labor agreement with the Building Trades Council to construct the facility.

Anne-Marie Otey, communications director for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, said BNSF has committed to local hiring preferences and that many of her organization’s members are residents of the impacted neighborhoods.

“They are really trying to do this the right way and they partnered with the union to do it,” Gordon said.

Mike Ford, who lives two blocks west of the I-710, so close that he can sometimes hear the truck traffic at the center of the DEIR, said the SCIG railyard makes sense for many reasons.

“If the SCIG is a consideration at all, any negative impact already exists,” he said. “The 710, ultimately, simply will be incapable of handling the amount of traffic that the harbors are going to generate.”

Ford, a commercial real estate appraiser, also dismissed claims by opponents that the railyard would drive down real estate values in the area.

Like John Cross, Ford is an example of the civic engagement the SCIG project has generated on both sides of the debate. Ford even writes a blog tracking the project’s progress.

Hundreds of local residents, labor members, environmental advocates and business representatives turned out for a public meeting on the SCIG project October 18 at Banning’s Landing Community Center in Wilmington to air their support and grievances. But this might just be another chapter in a protracted battle.

“If the project that’s approved is the project that’s described in the revised draft EIR,” Pettit said, “a lawsuit is extremely likely.”