It was the West Coast’s version of the Big Dig: A $2.4 billion project to improve railroad connections between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and the trans-continental rail hub 20 miles to the east.
The most important segment of the “freight expressway” was a trench 10 miles long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep — along with 30 new bridges — that eliminated more than 200 at-grade rail crossings smack in the middle of dense business districts and heavily populated neighborhoods.
But whereas its cross-country cousin in Boston turned into a nationally renowned fiscal and logistical nightmare, the Alameda Corridor — the nation’s costliest intermodal infrastructure undertaking — opened on time and within budget this past April.
The mega-project, two decades in the planning, required cooperation and funding from dozens of federal, state and local government entities, as well as two fiercely competitive railroads. Yet the process was almost problem-free, and much of the credit for the smooth ride goes to James Hankla. As head of the joint-powers Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, he was in charge of overseeing the whole endeavor — from financial and administrative matters to strategic planning and policy issues.
Hankla took the newly created post of chief executive officer in 1998, just as the Alameda Corridor Project was going from plan to build. A career civil servant, he had spent 12 years as the city manager of Long Beach and had also served as Los Angeles County chief administrative officer from 1985-87.
From the moment he arrived at ACTA, Hankla says, he kept the agency focused on one thing: Because the project was mostly funded through bonds and since those bonds would be paid back by rail user fees, “we never lost sight of the date the project was supposed to go into revenue service.”
But while Hankla may never have lost sight of that goal, there are usually a host of complications with the potential to derail any large-scale public-works project: cost-overruns, accidents, disputes and delays involving everyone from contractors to community activists, state and local regulators to local utility providers. Hankla notes his office worked hard to ensure that local residents, in particular, benefited from the project, through everything from employment opportunities to enhanced amenities, such as extra sound-proofing along the corridor.
Hankla attributes the fact that major problems never really materialized to two factors: First, as ACTA geared up for construction, he beefed up its fiscal monitoring capacity, along with its construction engineering expertise and its community outreach capabilities.
Second, he points to savvy hiring and personnel decisions. “City managers are used to dealing with problems and people,” Hankla says. “I found that if you put the right people with the right problem, then you’ll have success.”
Even given his skilled management, a progress report on the Alameda Corridor Project by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general in late 1999 seemed to be the stuff of fairy tale: It concluded that ACTA’s cost estimates were adequate and the timetable was reasonable.
Still, there were some bad days. At one point, the whole project ground to a halt because water seeping into the 10-mile rail trench turned out to be both brackish and polluted. “We hired some top-drawer water specialists and then worked through all the issues with a series of compromises [with state and local water and environmental officials],” Hankla says. It was the only time the project ever shut down.
Now — because the corridor project did finish on time and on budget — ACTA is being asked to manage other major transportation projects in the area, projects that probably seem simple by comparison. “I was never frightened of the project,” says Hankla. “I certainly respected it. But we city managers don’t scare easily.”
— Jonathan Walters
Photos by Steve Labadessa