Cargo has us at a crawl
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.