The 21st Century Ltd.

California's freight corridor is a prime example of the most important kind of development projects our cities will see.
June 2002
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Earlier this spring, the first freight train emerged from an underground trench a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles and headed along a separate right of way toward the enormous rail yards east of the city's business areas.

This is the kind of event that would seem to be a major breakthrough of the 19th century, not the 21st. Nonetheless, the switch giving the freight train the green light was pulled by here-and-now political leaders--U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, California Governor Gray Davis and Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, among others-- and it was done in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people.

In general, the politicians heralded the opening of the Alameda Corridor with the kind of rhetoric ordinarily reserved for space launchings and freeway openings. Davis compared the debut of the freight corridor to the opening of the transcontinental railroad. U.S. Representative David Dreier called it "the silk road of the 21st century."

This rhetoric might be a bit extreme. But like so many other projects around the country right now, the Alameda Corridor is a prime example of the most important kind of economic development projects our metropolitan areas will see in the 21st century: filling in the missing piece. That is, streamlining an existing system rather than creating a new one.

The deal to put the corridor together was complicated and expensive. It's a $2.2 billion project that required the combined efforts of dozens of federal, state and local agencies, as well as two major railroads, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific. Given the range of players involved, it's not surprising that it took more than 20 years to bring the project to fruition, with five years for construction alone.

Underneath all the complexity, however, the Alameda Corridor is a very simple idea. It is an enormous trench--50 feet wide, 33 feet deep and 10 miles long--combined with a series of bridges, overpasses and underpasses at either end to create a separate, 20-mile-long right of way for freight

Its purpose is also simple. The corridor is designed to slice through one of the most crowded and congested parts of Los Angeles and remove one of the biggest roadblocks to the efficient movement of goods in the United States: the gap between the containerized ports in the Long Beach area and the transcontinental railroad system that begins in downtown Los Angeles.

There has been a lot of debate over the years about whether the poor, mostly Latino communities along the corridor would share in its economic benefits. The presence of the rail lines helped to create southern Los Angeles County as an industrial powerhouse, but it also has put these communities in the path of pollution, noise and danger. Throughout the corridor's planning, these communities feared that they would bear the brunt of more train traffic and yet miss out on the resulting jobs--an on-going concern that has been a matter of debate for more than six years.

Today, there are still outposts of community opposition to the corridor, but they are rare. In the end, most elected officials along the corridor bought into the project--partly because construction included local hiring and apprenticeship programs, but mostly because of the trench.

When the corridor opened in April, elected officials repeatedly crowed about the local hiring--even though, given the fact that the project cost more than $2 billion, the numbers were rather small. Overall, 1,200 local residents were hired to construct the corridor, and 600 entered union apprenticeship programs.

The physical impact on the communities is more profound. By boxing the trains in and pushing them below street level, the trench transformed the corridor into the railroad equivalent of a flood- control project--a project that protects communities from the adverse effects of a corridor rolling through their neighborhoods. For most of its length, the trench isn't pretty. It's a large, depressed box of concrete along Alameda Street, fenced off so no one can enter it. In keeping with the flood-control theme, it looks a lot like the channelized Los Angeles River.

The unattractiveness of the project doesn't seem to bother local politicians. For them, the trench is far preferable to an endless series of freight trains snaking along the edge of their town.

Like most American cities today, Los Angeles is no longer a freewheeling place with plenty of room to grow. Like the trains along the Alameda Corridor, it is boxed in. In Los Angeles--as in Boston, New York, Chicago and elsewhere--the future of economic development lies not in building brand-new things. Rather, it lies in filling in the gaps and making existing systems more efficient by providing the missing pieces. As the Alameda Corridor proves, the missing piece doesn't have to be grandiose or beautiful to do the job. It just has to work.