The words "green" and "cargo containers" hardly seem to belong in the same sentence. Shipping is a dirty business. Particulate matter and greenhouse gases have long blackened the lungs of people who live near the ports, giving the area the lowest air quality rating in the region. One source of foul air is the port equipment, including the diesel-burning cranes and tow-trucks that move containers from ships to trucks. More harmful, however, is the fleet of fume-vomiting trucks that haul containers from the ports to intermodal yards near downtown Los Angeles and other places further inland, where the containers are loaded onto rail cars to destined for points east. These trucks make an average of 6,000 trips daily to and from the ports (including multiple trips by individual vehicles.) Many of these trucks are more than 20 years old, and engines tend to emit increasingly more with age. 

You can understand my initial incredulity, then, with the claim that the proposed $500 million Southern California International Gateway would be "the greenest intermodal facility in the U.S." This claim can be found in the draft EIR of the project, filed last month by the developer, BNSF Railways of Dallas, Texas. BNSF appears to be betting heavily on a government-relations campaign that emphasizes both environmental quality and improved efficiency in moving the metal boxes through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. And the company has some progressive, even eye-opening suggestions on how to improve better air quality. Yet we still must ask whether BNSF is overstating the benefits the intermodal facility to bring to the region, such as improved air quality and lighter traffic on the 710 Freeway, the antiquated roadway leading to and from the ports. 

An obvious tension exists between the goals of improving the air quality in the port area and the need to push millions of containers more quickly through the two ports onto waiting trains. The Los Angeles-Long Beach ports are the busiest in the nation, in part because they are primary point of entry for Chinese goods and/or American goods made in China. The aging 710 Freeway, which carries the bulk of the truck traffic to and from the ports, has undergone repeated studies for widening, although that prospect seems both expensive and politically volatile.  

 The basic premise of the BNSF intermodal yard is fairly simple: To cut down on pollution, they will shorten the distance that trucks must travel. Located about four miles away from the ports, the facility is far closer to the ports than BNSF's existing intermodal yard, which is 24 miles away in downtown Los Angeles. Shorter truck trips mean lower emissions overall, at least from those serving the new intermodal yard. (Many other trucks travel further to intermodal yards in the Inland Empire.) The shorter trip to the new yard means greater efficiency, with an expected increase of 1.5 million containers annually. The project sponsors, in the draft EIR, further claim that the project will improve traffic on the stop-and-go 710 Freeway.

BNSF offers several other green features: One welcome decision is to use all electric equipment to move the containers. Another idea is to incentivize truck drivers to use cleaner-burning vehicles, by refusing to do business with drivers with substandard emissions. 

All these green ideas are admirable, as far as they go. But will they make a meaningful difference to the brown air hovering over this heavily trafficked freeway? Sparing an estimated 1.5 million truck trips a year is a good thing. But the 710 Freeway is a thoroughfare in which demand always is greater than capacity. If BNSF actually manages to create some room on the road, that room will be quickly filled other truckers, who are driving their high-emissions trucks to container yards deep in the Inland Empire, shooting out tons of greenhouse gases and particulates all the while. So in this theoretical situation, BNSF gets good marks for increasing its own efficiency and sustainable practices, any claims to lighten traffic or reduce overall pollution, however, are not realistic.

Similarly, the decision to do business with only low-emissions trucks seems to send the right message to the trucking industry. But if other container yard operators do not insist on cleaner trucks, BNSF has not really changed the equation. The preferences of one yard operator for clean burning truck engines over dozens of others that do not does not stack up as a strong enough incentive to change the behavior of truck drivers. Keep in mind that the majority of truck owners are small, family-owned businesses that bought older trucks because the latter cost a fraction of the sticker price of newer models. These owners do not have deep pockets. One meaningful program, sponsored by the ports, was to buy older trucks and cut them in half with acetylene torches, while the owners got a grant to help buy a newer, less polluting vehicle. A few dozen vehicles, however, are not enough to change the chronically poor air quality of the harbor area. 

The resulting situation is an unenviable policy question that counterposes the needs of small business, the needs of big business, and those of public health. BNSF is "modeling good behavior," as they say in parenting class. The net improvement to the environment, however, remains questionable if others do not similarly change their trucks and their equipment. 

But in the endless slow recovery, high-paying jobs are nothing to sneeze at. The best part of the BNSF container yard is that it promises 1,500 construction jobs for three years. Apparently the construction unions agree with me: In late October, when a group of them agreed to provide $255 million in project financing in exchange for an agreement from BNSF to hire union labor. If BNSF can't clean the air in L.A. County's worst air shed, they can at least make blue skies for a lot of under-employed people.