California's Freight Plan is an opportunity to clean up cargo
Posted February 11, 2013
Sometimes old habits die hard. In the case of California’s freight transportation system, we’ve clung to ancient technology and outmoded methods of moving cargo for far too long. But then again, so has the rest of the nation. Why are we so entrenched in an inefficient, polluting fossil-fuel driven transportation system that suffocates the many communities it slices through? The more important question is: When are we going to get beyond it and how? The California Freight Plan, now required by the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP 21) federal transportation law, provides an opportunity to answer these questions and lead the nation into a cleaner, more efficient system of moving our goods.
Today’s hearing in Sacramento on the Development of California’s Freight Plan put on by the Assembly Transportation Committee is a good place to lay the groundwork on how to develop a policy that reduces pollution and delivers our cargo across the state. We need a freight advisory committee as MAP 21 directs the states to create. Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves, take stock of the inadequacies of the current freight system, survey advanced transportation technologies and system-wide improvements that can be done (looking here in the U.S. as well as abroad), consider the various mechanisms to generate revenue required to help finance new approaches; and start talking about different scenarios that could work in California. There’s no silver bullet solution to fix our complex and outdated system, but plodding forward with the status quo is also no longer an option.
There are many reasons why California can’t add more freeway lanes and build longer trains on existing rail infrastructure to meet our ever growing freight needs. One of the biggest problems is the tangled land use patterns throughout California that have put millions of homes, schools and daycares up against fencelines of freeways, railyards and trucking hubs. These fenceline freight communities have shouldered a massive health cost, unknowingly subsidizing our cheap goods with their lungs and lives.
For too many Californians, living in a freight-affected community means being exposed to high levels of diesel and other air toxics, and that translates to increased risk of asthma and respiratory illness, emergency room visits, heart attack, stroke and premature death.
A recent study in Los Angeles County found that eight percent of childhood asthma cases are a result of living close (within 250 feet) to major roadways. Health risk assessments done by the railroad companies on their largest yards in California show cancer risks in excess of 100 people per million affecting thousands of people living around railyards.
At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference last week, a few of the sessions focused on the issues of heavy freight industries in communities. During a tour of the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, adjacent to a large railyard, several Californians remarked that it looked just like home to them. Penny Newman (CCAEJ), an environmental justice leader working in the Inland Empire, later reported that roughly half of the students at one of the schools near the San Bernardino Railyard have asthma.
To some, the persistent health toll of freight pollution in California may be hard to understand. After all, the state has come a long way since the Diesel Risk Reduction Plan of 2000 and the Goods Movement Emission Reduction Plan in 2006, which led to half a dozen freight pollution reduction measures. Combined with major efforts at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through their Clean Air Action Plan, these measures have made substantial progress on air quality. But here in California, gateway for half of the nation’s imported goods, the current slate of clean freight measures is not enough. Staggering rates of asthma remain in these freight-affected communities, and that’s just one of the health impacts that these communities sustain.
If we’re going to get serious about bringing relief to these communities and truly modernizing our freight system, we need to start moving our system off of diesel and off of fossil fuels entirely. That means making a commitment to electrify major rail lines (and increasing our renewable power capacity). It means reducing the number of trucks on our roads, funding advanced technologies, finding additional revenue for clean freight and making system-wide changes. We detail many of the best clean freight measures in our new Clean Cargo toolkit released last week. These are all things that the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) have begun to do, but it needs to happen at a faster pace and in coordination with the rest of the state.
It won’t be easy, but one thing we can all agree on: It’s time to move on from our antiquated freight system.
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