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New High Speed Rail Line to Boost US West Coast Economy

Los Angeles officials say a new high-speed rail line will solidify the city's role as the international trade center for the United States. The project opened Friday amid predictions it would spur a boom in the West Coast economy.

The joint ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together form the busiest port in the United States and the third busiest in the world, after Hong Kong and Singapore. Ten million shipping containers pass through the joint facility each year, accounting for $200 billion in trade. As U.S. commerce grows with Pacific Rim nations in Asia and Latin America, local officials expect those figures to double in less than 20 years.

But growth has brought congestion. After containers were unloaded, some were trucked and others went by train to Los Angeles, from there to be shipped to all parts of the country.

Beverly O'Neill is mayor of the city of Long Beach, a partner in the port and also in the high-speed rail line. Called the Alameda Corridor, the link spans 32 kilometers from the harbor to downtown Los Angeles. "The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, combined, is the third largest in the world, and the access that they need to the inter-continental rail system in Los Angeles is just crucial," she says. "And the trucks on the freeways are just jamming the freeways, and this is going to make a great deal of difference."

With some hyperbole, excited local officials compare the rail link to the Panama Canal, and even the historic Silk Road trading route in Asia. An enthusiastic Gray Davis, California's governor, notes his state had the world's seventh-largest economy when he took office three years ago. "My first year, we passed Italy," he says. "My second year, we passed France. We're now the (world's) fifth largest economy. I predict to you when the benefits of the Alameda Corridor come to pass, we will pass the United Kingdom and become the fourth largest economy in 2004 and the Alameda Corridor is a big part of that."

Chief engineer Duane Kenagy says the Alameda Corridor is one of the largest construction projects undertaken in California, especially a 16-kilometer segment of trench cut three-stories below street level. Thirty new bridges have been added and more than 200 street crossings eliminated. That will allow trains to more than double their current speed, permitting three times as many railway trips each day.

The engineer says it was difficult to coordinate construction through a region full of roads and power lines. "The scope of the project, a 10-mile trench through a developed urban area with over 2,000 utility crossings, tremendous amount of interaction with eight cities that the corridor passes through, utility companies, a tremendous logistical challenge," he says.

Workers drilled 27,000 pilings to support the trench's walls and poured hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of concrete. To prevent costs overruns, it all had to be done in 39 months.

Frank Colonna is chairman of the governing board of the Alameda Corridor. He says the rail line provides a vital link between nations of the Pacific Rim and U.S. communities, who export raw materials and import finished products, from tennis shoes to televisions. "Because this is national security corridor, it's extraordinarily important for moving goods and shipments of international trade containers," he says. "For the region, it's extraordinary for our ability to move trains at a fast rate, to reduce air pollution, to eliminate a lot of gridlock, and to find a safe passage for trains from the harbors to the rail yards."

The next challenge, say officials, is completion of a high-speed corridor for trains heading through the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles en route to other parts of the United States. That line, and another project heading out of suburban Orange County, are now under way.