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From Commerce to Community

by Richard Risemberg

Though the economy remains depressed, traffic at the side-by-side ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has been inching back up to historical levels. With the return of business come renewed calls for terminal expansion to handle the millions of shipping containers landed or loaded in San Pedro Bay every year.

There are two obstacles in the way of such expansion. One is that the ports themselves are running out of room.

Another is that any port expansions will have to be accompanied by increased capacity to move those containers between the ports and the rest of America. There have been plans to widen the already dismal 710 freeway to fourteen lanes at its southern end, and build a $20 billion tunnel under South Pasadena and several other cities at the other, sluicing what the City of Long Beach anticipates would be 90,000 diesel truck trips per day through the corridor.

Conventional wisdom sees no alternative--but we know that conventional wisdom is usually another term for intellectual laziness. Because there is in fact a clean and green alternative--one that would not only protect but enhance the neighborhoods it passes through, and one that would in fact make shipping both faster and more profitable for everyone from the transocean shipping companies themselves, to the railroads, to the retailers at the end of the chain.

And it can be built using current technology.

David Alba, an East Los Angeles native and former manager of one of the Long Beach port's largest container terminals, took a step back to see how his operations fit into the larger context--and he was dismayed by what he saw, especially the clumsy and antiquated system that juggles containers among ships, trains, and trucks, clogging freeways and crushing neighborhoods. Jacking containers on and off three or four different vehicles during a forty-mile trip to the big railyards inland accounts costs importers and exporters millions of dollars, and imposes congestion, noise, and deadly pollution onto corridor residents. Terminals themselves occupy thosuands of acres of valuable land, much of it reserved for container storage and for the trucks that haul them back and forth endlessly, till they finally end up on a train--usually forty miles away in another county.

He felt there had to be a better way. And he found a hint of it in the vertically-consolidated container terminal conceptualized by steel magnate Henry J. Kaiser over forty years ago. With that as his foundation, Alba began developing what he calls GRID.

GRID stands for "Green Rail/Intelligent Development," and it is a comprehensive package of port modernization, next-generation rail freight enhancements, and green community development that includes cycling and light rail connectivity.

At the heart of the port modernization module is the SuperDock, an integrated loading/unloading/sorting facility much like what Kaiser envisioned in the 1960s. The SuperDock not only moves containers off and on ships, it sorts them within itself and deposits them directly onto trains--cutting out the swarm of short-run truck movements within the ports. Despite the "Super" in its name, this new facility will use one-tenth the land surface that current practice requires, and will also cut ship-to-train time from 36 hours to three.

The SuperDock includes two rail facilities. One is a spur sending conventional trains directly from shipside to the Alameda Corridor directly from the dock. The other is a synchronous system capable of loading a dedicated 7500-ft unit train, designed specifically for GRID, in minutes. This train will traverse the city on a reserved, fully-electrified right-of-way--running underground most of the time to preserve neighborhoods.

This is the heart of GRID's next level of efficiency. By making its dedicated trains fully electric, it becomes possible to run them underground along massive pipelines originally designed for long-distance water transmission. And by making these trains driverless, reducing the need for habitable space inside the tunnels (where crews would enter only to make repairs), the project becomes much less expensive to implement.

It also means that no surface space is taken up by the right-of-way, except for small access structures for repair crews. More important, trains could run at much closer headways than manned trains can risk. The increase in container transport capacity means not only that several immensely expensive, environmentally and socially damaging freeway expansions could be cancelled; it means that eventually (given a little vision), the region's 710 freeway, used primarily for port truck traffic, could be dismantled, and job-rich industrial, commercial or retail development put in. Or homes. Or parks, schools, and other civic amenities.

But there would be no need to wait for that. There is another green shade to GRID that also uses pipeline technology: the undergrounding of high-tension lines, which now slash bleak corridors of otherwise useless land across the county. GRID is preparing to contract with power companies to put their transmission lines safely underground and lease the corridors themselves for redevelopment.

GRID envisions a "string of pearls" model of linear developments along these corridors (and over the GRID tunnels as well), linked by long-distance bike paths and a light rail line along a greenway, and serving mixed-use transit-oriented villages. Where transit options are especially rich, carfree villages would sprout as well. The corridors GRID is studying in Los Angeles County all cross numerous Metro Rail, Metrolink, and Amtrak lines, and hundreds of bus routes. Income from freight operations would provide the startup money for these developments.

All of it green, all of it efficient, all of it profitable. GRID plans on using private investment almost entirely, so instead of asking corridor governments for money, it will enhance their tax bases.

GRID may change the way development is seen in the United States. Whether it will happen or not is an open question, but there is already enthusiasm among groups as disparate as the Sierra Club, the Army Corps of Engineers, environmental justice organizations, and a couple of large infrastructure companies.

There is nothing like GRID out there today?but there's no reason there shouldn't be. The GRID concept uses mostly existing technology correlated in new ways to create modules that can work as standalones, plugged into current rail networks, or together as synergies. Either way, GRID saves money for all involved--shipping companies, railroads, cities, merchants, and consumers--while freeing up land for development, which will in turn create revenue and jobs in the region. GRID has something for everyone.

It's time for something new. GRID may just be that something.

Text by Richard Risemberg, photos from the GRID Consortium