The Alameda Corridor Rail Project

Great Policy Successes This case study corresponds to a chapter by Richard F. Callahan, entitled "Infrastructure partnership success in Southern California: Building and paying for the Alameda Corridor rail project", in the book Great Policy Successes, co-edited by Mallory Compton and Paul 't Hart. The book brings together fifteen cases of highly successful governance from around the world. For further information on this line of research, see: https://successfulpublicgovernance.com.

The Alameda Corridor railway was a large public infrastructure project with the aim to ensure that the Californian ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach remained competitive into the 21st century. Unlike many large infrastructure projects of this nature, which often run over budget and face significant delays, the USD2.4bn Alameda Corridor project was heralded as a success for being delivered on time and on budget.[1] As well as securing the future of the two ports, the project helped to reduce pollution along the railway line and increase employment in the region.  

The challenge

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are among the busiest in the US in terms of the volume of containers handled. With 25 percent of all US maritime traffic passing through them, they make up the fifth busiest port complex in the world.[1] Until the opening of the Alameda Corridor in 2002, cargo arriving into the ports would travel along one of four routes, operated by three railway companies in competition with one another: Union Pacific Railroad; Southern Pacific Transportation Company; and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.[2]

In the early 1980s, the ports and the Southern California Association of Government recognised that the current infrastructure would need to be improved in order to cope with the predicted increase of freight transport into the ports. 

The existing infrastructure also created many problems for road users and significant traffic congestion in the mid-corridor cities alongside the railway. Over 200 “at-grade” crossings intersected with the railway lines, causing large traffic delays and air and noise pollution, and creating safety hazards at each crossing.[2]

In order to ensure the ports could remain competitive as traffic volumes increased, it became essential to improve the railway connection from the two ports to the city of Los Angeles and to the rest of the country. This would be done by creating a single, consolidated corridor known as the Alameda Corridor (see The Initiative).[3]

The initiative

In 1981, the Southern California Association of Governments  – the metropolitan planning organisation responsible for the six county region serving over 12 million residents in Southern California – formed the Ports Advisory Committee. Its purpose was to oversee the planning phase of a project to consider ways of accommodating the rising levels of cargo expected to arrive through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

In December 1984, the Association’s executive committee adopted the plan recommended by the Port’s Advisory Committee to consolidate the 90 miles of four existing low-speed railway lines into a 20-mile line running parallel to Alameda Street. This was to be the route of the Alameda Corridor.[4] The corridor was to consist of “a series of bridges, underpasses, overpasses and street improvements that separate freight trains from street traffic and passenger trains”.[4] This would create a more efficient transport network, at the heart of which the “Mid-Corridor Trench” would carry freight trains in a 10-mile-long open trench.[4]

In 1985, the Association created the Alameda Corridor Task Force, which included members of the Ports Advisory Committee and the California Public Utilities Commission, and representatives from each of the eight cities along the corridor. In 1989, the two ports provided the seed funding for design and environmental studies, together with the creation of an agency that would oversee the project’s design and construction. That same year, the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach formed the Consolidated Transportation Corridor Joint Powers Authority, later renamed the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.[2]

The project’s aims were to:

  • Decrease rail journey times between the two ports and downtown Los Angeles from over 2 hours to 45 minutes
  • Reduce pollution from train emissions and traffic congestion 
  • Increase safety along the railway
  • Reduce noise pollution from trains
  • Increase train capacity to 150 trains per day along the route.[1][4]

The public impact

The primary aim of the Alameda Corridor project was to expand rail capacity and so increase the volume of goods moving by rail between the ports and downtown Los Angeles. During its first full year of operation in 2003, over 14,000 trains used the facility. During its peak year in 2006, that number had risen to 20,000 trains using the facility. Since then, the volume of containers has dipped back to 2003 levels, with just under 14,000 trains using the route in 2018.[5]

By 2012, there had been a reduction in pollution of more than 13,000 tonnes of pollutants as a result of the consolidation of freight rail operations and the alleviation of traffic congestion at the 200 at-grade crossings along the route.[6]

The project has delivered on its promise to increase the speed of journeys while decreasing pollution from the railway activity. The top speed for trains along the corridor is now 40 miles per hour, reducing travel time between the ports and downtown Los Angeles to 45 minutes from the 2 hours previously required.[7] Air pollution from idling cars and trucks has been cut by 54 percent. The benefits have also been felt by motorists, whose journeys are no longer impacted by the previously existing 200 at-grade crossings.[3]

As well as the direct impact of lower pollution and congestion levels, the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority strove to involve the local communities in the construction of the Alameda Corridor by providing training and apprenticeship opportunities. There was “construction industry-specific job training for 1,281 local residents, including 637 placed in union apprenticeships, [and] 30 percent of all labour hours for Mid-Corridor Trench were performed by local residents living in adjacent zip codes”.[8] Also, there was significant environmental clean-up of underground water contamination. 

The Authority also provided a USD1.2 million funding programme for local youth to remove graffiti, collect litter, and carry out other activities. Beyond this, it endeavoured to help local businesses compete for work on the project through their Alameda Corridor Business Outreach Program. The impact of this was that, by 2000, over 20 percent of contracts had been awarded to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises. These are small businesses in which socially and economically disadvantaged individuals own at least a 51 percent stake. The value of the contracts they received came to over USD285 million.[2][8][9]

Following almost two decades of planning, construction on the project was completed between 1997 and 2002, meaning that the project was delivered on time and within its USD2.4 billion budget, an outcome that earned the project praise from the US House of Representatives.[10]

While coverage of the Alameda Corridor has been broadly positive, a 2004 study by the University of Southern California found that, although the project had met its revenue expectations, its impact on lorry traffic in the region was “debatable”.[2] However, the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority has stressed that the aim of the project was never to remove lorry traffic from state freeways, but rather to consolidate rail traffic and eliminate the 200 at-grade crossings along the previous routes, while minimising the impact on communities.[4]

After the completion of the Alameda Corridor, further construction began on the Alameda Corridor East project, the route from San Gabriel Valley to Los Angeles, through which nearly 60 percent of containers travel as they move inland. The project shares similar aims with the Alameda Corridor, such as increasing safety along the railway and decreasing pollution and journey times for both motorists and rail freight.[11]

Written by Marianne Emler

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Fair

An extensive public consultation process took place in 1992. The Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority distributed the draft environmental impact report to 120 government agencies and received requests for an additional 100 copies. Formal scoping meetings were also held.[1]

Whilst there was no public opposition to the project during the initial environmental review process, there were some local disagreements regarding the proposed project design. Indeed, the corridor cities had a preference for a lowered trench design, whereas the ports preferred an at-grade railway with standard grade separations.[13]

The residents’ attitudes towards the project received fairly limited press coverage, as they were neither the creators nor the primary beneficiaries of the corridor. They felt that the additional jobs created and the economic boost from the corridor would “enrich already prosperous businesses and people far outside the city, but will do little to help those most in need, the relatively poor residents of South Los Angeles, through which the corridor will run”.[14]

Stakeholder Engagement Good

A major challenge was to convince the broad range of stakeholders to support the project. The key stakeholders involved included: the two ports, which were investing a large amount of money into this project; the private railways, which would be required to forfeit privately owned rights of way; regional agencies, such as the Southern California Association of Governments and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which were interested in easing traffic congestion; and the cities through which the corridor passed.[1] 

In order to ensure stakeholders were actively engaged in the project, the Southern California Association of Governments formed the Ports Advisory Committee in 1981. It included members of local government and industry, representatives from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the US Navy, and the Army Corp of Engineers. This later became the Alameda Corridor Task Force in 1985, and the Alameda Corridor Transport Authority in 1989. Membership of the Task Force was similar to the Committee with the addition of the California Public Utilities Commission and each of the eight cities along the proposed Alameda Corridor route, giving them the opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposed plans.[6] 

The addition of cities, however, made progress difficult for the committee due to the broad range of interests represented. This led to the size of the board being drastically reduced in 1996, following concerns from the ports about potential delays caused by the involvement of too many individual stakeholders. While this caused conflict on the project, it was managed by means of several settlements and memoranda of understanding (see Alignment below).[6][2]

Political Commitment Good

The Alameda Corridor was born of the desire of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to plan for future expansion of trade in order to remain competitive. The Southern California Association of Government recognised the need for the Alameda Corridor to be built, and formed the Port Authority Committee to look into the feasibility of road and rail options. 

Crucial to both the feasibility and success of the project was the support it received at federal level. In 1995, the project was designated a high priority intermodal corridor by the National Highway System Designation Act. A major milestone for the project was reached in January 1997 when then-president Bill Clinton presided over a ceremony to approve the USD400m federal loan to the project. Without this support, it is unlikely that the project would have been able to reach fruition.[12] The Federal support in turn developed from the commitment to use private sector funding from charging a rail container fee to the railroads. 

Policy

Clear Objectives Strong

The corridor’s objectives were clearly articulated in the 1996 final environmental impact statement for the project. “The purpose of the Alameda Corridor project is to facilitate access to the ports through the year 2020 to accommodate anticipated growth, thereby reducing highway traffic congestion, air pollution, vehicle delays at grade crossings and noise in residential areas. The fundamental purpose of the Alameda Corridor project is to provide a means for improved goods movement by which the adverse consequences of increased freight rail traffic can be reduced, while at the same time sustaining economic growth.[15]

Evidence Good

In 1982, the Ports Advisory Committee completed highway and rail reports, recommending highway improvements and the creation of a consolidated rail corridor. The recommendations in these reports to consolidate rail traffic – creating the Alameda Corridor – were adopted by the Southern California Association of Governments in 1984.[6] The 1984 study published by the Southern California Association included an assessment of alternative proposals and routes. These found that the consolidated Alameda Corridor route would be “the most cost-effective way of improving rail services and mitigating impacts of projected rail traffic”.[16]

The project’s 1996 evaluation – prepared for the California Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Railroad Administration – considered the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed plan and compared them with the plausible alternatives. It considered factors such as the corridor’s proximity to community facilities, noise, land use, aesthetics, perceived local impact, and costs. These found the Alameda Corridor to be the locally preferred route for this project.[15]

Feasibility Strong

A detailed funding plan was provided prior to the start of construction, specifying the breakdown between public and private funding, including federal funding sources. “The project has been funded by a public-private partnership to raise the necessary USD2.4bn. Of this USD1.165bn has come from revenue bond proceeds, USD394m from the port authorities, USD347m administered by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and USD154m from other state and federal sources.”[3]

The federal loan that the project received was essential to its feasibility. The Alameda Corridor Transport Authority also offered bonds which, unlike regular public infrastructure bonds, did not guarantee a return. Instead bond holders would receive payments from the future revenue stream of the corridor.[2] 

In addition to the evaluation of the proposed project, a thorough evaluation of alternatives was carried out, and a rationale provided for their rejection was published as part of the environmental impact statement. [15]

The Authority chose to use “design-building contracting” for this project. This approach sees the designer and contractor work together as one entity in much closer collaboration than in conventional contracting. There are some challenges to this approach, including its placing greater responsibility with the contractor and giving the project owner less control over the design. However, it generally means that decisions are reached more quickly, and as a result the construction can begin before all the details of the design have been finalised. This approach was specifically chosen in an effort to minimise delays from construction.[2]

The project earned praise in the US House of Representatives for the fact that “unlike most publicly funded programmes of this magnitude”, it was completed on time and on budget.[10]

Action

Management Good

The project was led by Gill Hicks, general manager of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority but it also drew on the experience of individuals who had previously served in roles such as harbour commissioner or executive director of the ports. These individuals brought with them a wealth of previous experience in dealing with large capital projects. Hicks described his own role as that of a “facilitator... with a mindset of building consensus”.[17]

On the ground, a programme management entity called the Alameda Corridor Engineering Team was hired in 1995. This entity was responsible for the preliminary design, environmental reviews, engineering and construction oversight, and other key aspects of the project. The Engineering Team established decision-making authority and made it clear at what level in the organisation a decision could be made.[13]

Measurement Fair

Certain specific performance statistics are tracked and monitored by the Authority. These relate to the number of trains per day, the revenue of the corridor, the number of Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) – a unit of measurement for shipping containers – both on and around the corridor. In addition, the Authority carried out an analysis of air quality of the Alameda Corridor from its opening in 2002 until 2005.[18] 

However, no evidence could be identified to show that the Authority has consistently measured the progress of the rest of its objectives – such as noise pollution – for the Alameda Corridor.[2]

Alignment Good

Cooperation within the Authority proved challenging from the outset, with mid-corridor cities focusing on the impact the corridor would have on their locality rather than on the overall objectives of the project. This began to detract from the main purpose of the Authority which was the construction of the corridor rather than local economic development. Whilst the Authority implemented several local economic initiatives (see The Initiative above), the board decided in 1995 to reduce the size of the governing board, removing representatives from the mid-corridor cities.

This was strongly contested by the mid-corridor cities themselves. They filed a lawsuit against the Authority which they lost. Despite this, the Authority wanted to ensure that these cities did not cause delays to the project. To this end, they negotiated settlements and memoranda of understanding with each city, providing financial mitigation in return for the assurance that they would not delay the approval of construction permits or challenge the project’s environmental impact report.[2]