Officials: Freight Transfer Lacking

Experts say plan to ease congestion flawed; want local
intermodal facility
Morgan Hill – Local transportation experts say Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to ease congestion and improve goods movement in the state has one giant flaw – no facility in South Valley to transfer freight from trucks to rail.

Intermodal facilities could be an important part of the governor’s strategy to speed the delivery and lower the costs of goods, especially produce, reduce traffic and accidents and benefit the environment, their advocates say. Placing one in South Valley could ease the congestion choking highways 101, 152, 156 and 25.

“There’s a lot of area in California that’s not being covered by piggyback,” said Al Navaroli, a Gilroy resident who worked in agricultural shipping for about 40 years. “It would be very attractive in the Salinas-Watsonville area. We’ve even discussed taking a branch line between Gilroy and Hollister and putting intermodal there. I think intermodal would provide a balance between growers and shippers.”

Piggyback rail is the use of flat bed cars to haul truck trailers. Intermodal facilities are places where trucks deliver goods that are transferred to rail cars. Transportation planners at all levels of government are quick to praise intermodal facilities but equally fast with a list of reasons why they’re unfeasible.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” said Barry Sedlik, the state’s undersecretary for transportation, business and housing.” We need to get all the players lined up to make something like that work. We’re looking at ways to get the private sector more involved and identify sources of public funding. We hope just by calling attention to goods movement that it will get more attention.”

So while the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the state government are willing to invest hundreds of millions for new roads in South Valley, when it comes to intermodal facilities, they’re calling on private enterprise, even as they acknowledge that moving freight from truck to railroad cars would make driving in the area easier and safer.

“In concept, intermodal freight movement will play a critical role in reducing statewide congestion,” said John Ristow deputy director of the VTA. ” Anything that improves logistics and takes trucks off the roads, we’re all for. But it’s a statewide issue, bigger than can be taken on by one county alone. To make it work, it’s critical that private freight operators come to the table.”

That means relying on Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway or Union Pacific Corp., which owns the tracks that run through South County. UP has five intermodal facilities in California, the closest in Oakland and Lathrop.

Joseph P. Thompson, a transportation attorney from Hollister, said the railroads’ power make them disagreeable business partners.

“They have eminent domain power, they don’t have to ask local governments for permission and don’t have to comply with local and state regulations,” Thompson said. “They’re akin to Native American tribes. If you’re not going to do something that’s going to make them a lot of money, they don’t need to putz around with you. The local government has to roll out a red carpet.”

The key is infrastructure. With the rail companies already exceeding capacity in many parts of the state, intermodal stations will require not just the facilities, but new rail lines and cars. Mark Davis, a UP spokesman, said his company likes the idea of more intermodal stations, but wants serious public investment.

“California is a very important state for UP in the movement of goods, and it’s extremely important that we look at new opportunities to ensure that our current and future customers are not impacted adversely because of growth,” Davis said. “We usually partner with a community and their economic developers. Once we determine there’s a need then we can look at how that fits into the current state of railroad operations in that area.”

Larry Cope, executive director of Gilroy’s Economic Development Corp., said he has discussed the idea with San Benito County leaders since he took over for the late Bill Lindsteadt earlier this year.

“If it’s something that would help our region and local industries, I think it’s a very logical thing to be looking at,” Cope said. “We need to see if a regional partnership, even one including Morgan Hill and San Jose, could help something like that come together.”

Maria Figueora, operations manager for the refrigerated shipper Martrac in Salinas, said adding a local facility would save growers and shippers money and take a day or more off the time it takes to get produce to east coast markets. Currently, goods from this area are trucked to Richmond or the Central Valley, where they’re put on rail cars.

“This would be a good place because at certain times of the year, everything comes out of this valley,” Figueora said. “We wouldn’t have to deal with traffic problems.”

And while building an intermodal facility could change the economic landscape of South Valley, many truckers say they would welcome such a move because it could make it easier to ship a variety of goods.

“The whole South Bay is really booming and it’s a good idea to get the infrastructure in place now,” driver Roger Thornberry said. “There will be shorter runs, but more of them so it could increase business.”

Potential Benefits

Benefits of a Local Intermodal Facility to Transfer Freight from Trucks to Rail

– Speed transport of goods

– Reduce traffic congestion and accidents

– Create jobs

– Stimulate local economy

– Improve air quality

– Lower highway maintenance costs

– Preserve farmland and rural areas

– Reduce fuel consumption

To view the plan visit: www.arb.ca.gov/gmp/docs/finalgmpplan090205.pdf

Leave your comments