Frank Schiavone fumed inside his Acura MDX, stuck behind the gates of a railroad crossing in downtown Riverside.
Five minutes went by, then 10. Schiavone, a Riverside councilman, wondered how late he would be for an appointment at City Hall as he stared at the freight cars double-stacked with shipping containers. Around him, hundreds of other motorists sat, engines idling, their plans on hold.
Twenty minutes passed before the freight train cleared the crossing.
Schiavone had been trapped yet again by America's enormous appetite for imported goods an increasingly common experience in his city, which is trisected by rail lines carrying about 125 trains a day.
Municipal officials say freight trains have delayed more than 500 ambulances, police cars and fire trucks in Riverside during the last five years some for as long as 15 minutes.
"I'm glad I'm not in the back of an ambulance on my way to the hospital in this city," Schiavone said.
Whether the delay comes at a rail crossing or behind a line of big rigs on a clogged interstate, hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians routinely live with the side effects of the region's huge and growing role in international trade.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach make up the nation's largest harbor complex, handling 44% of all goods imported by cargo container into the United States. Last year, the equivalent of 7.85 million 40-foot shipping containers poured through the ports, with most then moving along the region's highways to massive rail yards and warehouses before heading to the nation's interior.
Trade has generated hundreds of thousands of jobs in Southern California. Moving goods is now one of the largest industries in the region, one that helps provide low-cost imports to consumers across the country. The ports are among the region's most valuable economic engines.
But that commerce also helps foul the region's air with diesel exhaust and contributes to paralyzing traffic on the region's streets and highways, many of which were built in the 1950s and '60s and never designed to handle so much cargo.
"If we weren't providing a gateway for the country to consume all these cheap products from Asia, we would have a lot better mobility," said Norm King, a founder of the transportation institute at Cal State San Bernardino.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, highways used for commerce in the Los Angeles area rank among the worst in the nation in terms of delay. That unfortunate distinction is not expected to change soon.
The volume of cargo, which has tripled in the last two decades, is forecast to almost triple again in the next 20 years. By 2025, the number of truck trips on the 710 and 60 freeways and the 10 in the Inland Empire is expected to double to accommodate port growth.
The cost to deal with congestion related to goods movement or simply to keep it at current levels is enormous, $18 billion statewide, mostly in Southern California, according to a recent report for the state Legislature.
A transportation bond measure passed by California voters in November 2006 set aside about $3 billion for such projects statewide. The ballot initiative is only a start, according to transportation experts who urgently tout a list of high-priced projects, which include:
* Eliminating 131 street-level rail crossings in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties cost $4.5 billion.
* Rebuilding an 18-mile stretch of the 710 Freeway from the harbor to Interstate 5, adding four new lanes exclusively for trucks cost at least $6 billon.
* A magnetically levitated train to haul cargo from the ports to warehouses in San Bernardino County cost $6 billion to $8 billion.
Who should pay for the construction remains hotly debated. Local government officials and regional planners say the federal government should pick up a larger share of the cost because trade through Southern California's ports benefits the nation as a whole.
Recent studies by UC Berkeley Professor Robert C. Leachman show that as much as 80% of the containerized goods that arrive in Los Angeles and Long Beach are taken by train or truck to retailers, manufacturers and warehouses out of state.
"It is not California's job to deliver cheap televisions to Omaha. That is the job of the federal government and the transportation industry," said Lee Harrington, former president and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
That road to Omaha begins at the region's two massive ports, where towering cranes pluck steel boxes off giant cargo ships as hundreds of small utility trucks hustle along the docks, moving containers to and from storage yards. Inside are loads of furniture, electronics, clothing, toys, machinery and parts for manufacturers cargo worth an estimated $313 billion a year.
Some of the containers are loaded onto trains in port for direct shipment out of state. Most are picked up by big rigs and taken to rail yards and warehouses near downtown Los Angeles and in San Bernardino County, which is one of the nation's leading distribution hubs.
The first leg of this journey often involves the region's truck routes, particularly the 710, 91, 60 and 10 freeways.
The biggest impact is on the 710, the main artery for the port complex. Except for improvements to the median barrier and shoulders that are underway, the highway is in bad shape.
The cracked and broken pavement is heavily patched with asphalt overlays, an adequate but temporary fix in an age of tight state budgets. The short 1950s-style exits and onramps are obsolete. The lanes are often narrow, and the road lacks emergency shoulders in some places.
In 2006, trucks averaged about 39,000 trips per day on the 710 20% of the road's traffic. The rigs the majority 80,000-pounders often line up nose to tail for miles in the two right lanes on each side of the freeway.
"There are a lot more cars out there today and a lot more big rigs," said Ike Talison of Gardena, a veteran trucker who has hauled cargo from the port on the 710 for almost 19 years. "I used to do five containers a day; now I can do four because of the congestion, if I'm lucky."
Partly because of the interplay of cars and trucks, the accident rate on the 710 Freeway is higher than the norm for state highways.
Truck-related accidents happen on average more than once a day there. From 2002 to 2006, the most recent year for which complete figures were available, the accidents resulted in 18 deaths and 677 injuries.
Hobart, which spreads across 245 clamorous acres roughly five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is the busiest rail yard in the country for transferring cargo containers between trucks and trains. Inside, trains up to 1 1/2 miles long are assembled or broken down with the help of global positioning technology, which locates cargo in the facility. The yard handles about 11 incoming trains a day and 11 departures for destinations including Houston, Chicago and Memphis.
Those transcontinental trains must pass through either Los Angeles County or northern Orange County before heading to the Inland Empire and points east. Along the way, they regularly clog traffic on surface streets.
Eliminating freight isn't an option.
"Goods movement is vital to the California economy," said Danny Wu, who managed goods movement planning for the association of governments. "There will be more congestion, delay, noise and health-threatening emissions unless we can come up with more efficient ways of moving freight."
The problems are most apparent in Riverside, which has 26 railroad crossings. Individual delays of 28 minutes per train have been recorded.
In January, an ambulance was delayed seven minutes while rushing a teenage motorcyclist with a serious head injury to a trauma center. The youth, who was hurt in a dirt-bike crash, was unconscious and having seizures. He is recovering.
"Transporting someone with a broken leg might not be a problem," said Peter Hubbard, a spokesman for American Medical Response, which provides the city's ambulance service. "But a person with a serious brain injury or in cardiac arrest needs to see a neurosurgeon or a heart specialist right away."
After the city threatened the railroads with fines and criminal prosecution last summer, railroad executives and Riverside officials agreed to work together to reduce delays for motorists.
Railroad officials acknowledge the problems, but they blame roads and rail networks built years before the surge in trade, and a shortage of government funds to build overpasses and underpasses that separate streets from busy rail lines.
"Delay in one part of the rail system can trickle down into other parts of the system," said Zoey Richmond, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific. "We are working with the city on short-term solutions, but we need to take care of rail bottlenecks and old railroad crossings."
Some of this work is underway.
In 2002, the Alameda Corridor opened from the port to the rail yards near downtown Los Angeles.
At a cost of $2.4 billion, the project overhauled a 20-mile freight route and eliminated scores of grade-level crossings by lowering the track into a concrete trench. It now carries 50 trains each day.
Transportation officials are planning to extend the corridor east. Earlier this year, the California Transportation Commission earmarked $366 million for projects in the Los Angeles area and the Inland Empire to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings. Port officials and the railroads also want to build and expand rail yards close to the harbor or on the docks to reduce truck traffic.
In addition, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency, is studying a network of truck-only highway lanes that would stretch from the ports to the Inland Empire via the 710, 60 and 10 freeways.
Those projects come with big price tags but are a top priority for business leaders and regional planners, who fear the ports will lose business to competitors if congestion continues to worsen.
Traffic congestion regularly delays about a fifth of commercial trucks in the region, increasing the cost of shipping by 50% to 250%, studies show.
"There is increasing concern in the region about moving goods," said Joseph Magaddino, chair of the economics department and the global logistics program at Cal State Long Beach. "It does no good to off-load cargo in port if you can't move it quickly."