Inland Port concept to flow more trade to Central Valley, cut pollution

Feasibility study Central Valley rail network could be used to bring more freight into and out of the Valley while reducing shipping costs and air pollution

VISALIA – You can’t have a port without water, but when have definitions ever stopped California from doing what it wants. 

A collaborative consortium of California port authorities, county governments, transportation agencies, air pollution control districts have joined forces to analyze the feasibility of developing a new, intermodal rail spine to connect seaports to key markets via the Central Valley. The plan is to develop a network of three or four “Inland Ports” in Central Valley cities with built-in access to freight rail and trucking routes. By developing a better intermodal system of moving freight, where trucks are used to transport cargo containers from ships to rail and then from rail to their destination instead of driving across the state, the project promises to cut greenhouse gasses, significantly improve air quality, reduce road congestion, boost traffic safety, and advance California’s extraordinarily large intra-state freight movement system.

“Given the scale of California’s market, its geographic proximity, and its seaport infrastructure, the California Inland Port would become a nationally significant logistics and economic development project; a key to advancing California’s ambitious climate, economy, and equity goals which could then be modeled in other states,” stated a feasibility report conducted by the San Joaquin Valley Regional Planning Agencies Policy Council.

Tulare County has been on board with the project since its inception through its membership in the San Joaquin Valley Metropolitan Planning Organizations and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Now the city of Visalia has joined efforts to become one of the Inland Ports although Fresno may have the inside track with access to both freight rail giants, Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF). But Visalia is now a key logistics center adjacent to both Highway 99 and the main UP line.

”It’s on our radar,” says Devon Jones, economic development manager for the city of Visalia.

The objectives of the California Inland Port are:

  • Support new job creation and investment growth by fundamentally repositioning the economic competitiveness of the San Joaquin Valley region.
  • Create a more robust and efficient distribution system with a specific focus on high-value manufacturing, e-commerce, and the agriculture sectors.
  • Reducing shipping costs for shippers that manage global supply chains through direct intermodal rail service to/from the San Pedro seaports.
  • Significantly reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of truck trips from the seaports complex in the Los Angeles region to the Central Valley and the Bay Area.
  • Reduce highway road congestion, with a parallel reduction in the requirement for road maintenance; accident-avoidance savings; all of this reducing cost.

There is currently no rail intermodal service from the Ports to intra-California markets. Practically all containerized cargo being transported to and from California seaports from inland markets travel by truck. The report noted that in recent years, there has been considerable interest in better connecting the San Joaquin Valley to the international seaports in Southern California, such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.  These efforts have the potential to enhance economic opportunity in the Central Valley while simultaneously reducing air pollution.  

The Port of Los Angeles and Merced County kicked off the concept by developing the Mid-California International Trade District, a growing logistics and manufacturing hub in Merced County. Building on this effort, a group of business leaders and the Central Valley Community Foundation initiated the California Inland Port Feasibility Analysis (CIPFA) which set out to determine whether it would be feasible to establish a rail-served inland port project in California. 

Based upon an analysis completed in spring 2020, proposed intermodal rail service would provide a significant reduction in annual emissions for cargo being shipped in and out of the San Joaquin Valley. Nitric oxide (NOx) emissions, the primary byproduct of burning fossil fuel, would be reduced by up to 83% while greenhouse gas emissions, such as ozone, would be reduced by up to 93%, according to a feasibility conducted by the San Joaquin Valley Regional Planning Agencies Policy Council. Moving large quantities of freight via rail would remove some freight trucks from the public highways, reducing congestion, improving traffic flow and safety on Highways 101, 99 and I-5.

Industry is On Board
The feasibility study also gathered input from key sectors of the shipping industry including large agricultural exporters, key exporters of manufactured products, inbound retailers, logistical companies like Amazon, and trucking companies and ocean carriers. 

“In general, the input strongly suggested that industry felt that the introduction of intermodal rail through the California market would be beneficial to their current business and would support increased business in the future,” the report stated. “In terms of today’s condition, there was an overwhelming desire for reductions in shipping costs and more surety about stable logistics solutions to support growth.”

Agricultural processors, such as Tulare County citrus, indicated a desire for far more efficient field-to-port logistics.  They indicated that lower costs would increase their profit margins and support increased export production.

Distribution centers, like Walmart, Joann’s and Amazon in Tulare County, saw rail as a way to offset shipping cost through fuel reductions and dynamics. 

Due to the challenges of securing drivers for longer hauls, the trucking community reacted positively to the concept of increased rail service to key hubs in the Central Valley.  They felt that an intermodal rail inland port would reduce their exposure to running longer haul trucks into the Los Angeles traffic zone and reduce their exposure to long wait times at the ports. Serving intermodal hubs in the Central Valley would allow them to substitute shorter and more profitable routes and would allow them to retain drivers. 

Pulling Forward
The Inland Ports project is currently in Phase two of its feasibility study determining market readiness, industry acceptance, estimating costs and competitive impacts to the region while preparing for the environmental process moving forward. This phase is where the Executive Advisory Group (EAG) is formed, helping to inform decision making as the study moves forward. All major stakeholders will have a role in this group. The private sector, including major shippers and experts, will inform the EAG through a Shipper’s Committee. Phase Two is fully funded and is proceeding through GLDPartners under the management of the Fresno Council of Governments.

Phase Three will move the project forward to the delivery stage, detail a project financial performance model, develop a business plan for green, high-efficiency logistics/investment hubs around intermodal facilities, plan for an intermodal facility site selection, develop detailed capital cost programs, deliver a railroad agreement to collaborate, and develop public-private delivery options. Phase Three received a Caltrans Strategic Partnership grant for $388,000 in the 2021-22 funding cycle.

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