2024: A ‘Pivotal Year’ for POLB’s Pier B Rail Facility

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
Aerial view of Pier B, courtesy of Port of Long Beach.

Aerial view of Pier B, courtesy of Port of Long Beach.

The Port of Long Beach (POLB) on Nov. 29 announced that after more than 15 years of planning, it is going out to bid in early 2024 for its first construction contract to begin building the $1.567 billion Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility, which will be built in phases with the final segment due to be completed in 2032.

“We’re eager to break ground and start laying new tracks for this transformative facility,” said Long Beach Harbor Commission President Bobby Olvera Jr. “Expanding and modernizing this rail yard allows our Port to move more cargo faster, more efficiently and more safely to markets across the nation.”

“This is the first of a series of construction projects that make up the Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility program,” said Port CEO Mario Cordero. “By augmenting our ability to increase velocity in container movement by rail and move more cargo by rail, the Port is well-positioned to handle cargo growth, prevent supply chain delays and reduce emissions associated with Port activity into the future.”

According to POLB, the Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility is the “long-awaited centerpiece” of a series of improvements the Port has been making to its rail network. Over the last three years alone, which coincided with the height of the global pandemic, the Port completed the double-track project from Pier G to Pier J, the fourth track at Ocean Boulevard, and the on-dock rail yard at Middle Harbor operated by Long Beach Container Terminal. The latter, POLB says, has the capacity to handle one million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

The new facility, POLB says, will more than double the size of the existing Pier B rail yard from 82 acres to 171 acres and more than triple the volume of on-dock rail cargo the Port can handle annually, from 1.5 million TEUs to 4.7 million TEUs. The yard will also feature a depot for fueling and servicing up to 30 locomotives at the same time and a full-service staging area to assemble and break down trains up to 10,000 feet long.

Approximately 25% of the cargo that moves through the San Pedro Bay ports complex is destined for hubs like Chicago, Wichita and Atlanta. On-dock rail is the best option for getting cargo to these inland destinations quickly, and longer trains streamline the process, POLB says.

A single train traveling across the country is typically two miles long, said Deputy Chief Harbor Engineer Mark Erickson. “The new on-dock rail support facility is a game-changer that significantly increases our capacity to build and dispatch these long trains.”

Constructing the facility involves adding more than 130,000 feet of rail, quadrupling the number of tracks from 12 to 48, widening the rail bridge over the Dominguez Channel from two to three tracks, and reconfiguring and improving nearby Pico Avenue and Pier B Street. The program will be built through 10 projects, starting with the rail yard’s East Expansion. POLB says it plans to solicit bids for this first segment during the first quarter of 2024 and start construction in the fall. Before year’s end, the Port also expects to seek construction bids on the locomotive facility, then begin construction in 2025.

During construction, POLB says the Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility is expected to create an estimated 1,135 jobs.

To date, POLB has invested $140 million in pre-construction tasks for the Pier B program. That sum, the Port says, is expected to reach $273 million when its 2024 fiscal year ends in September. The money has primarily gone to design and planning costs. HDR and Hill International are the two main contractors on the project so far.

Most of the $1.567 billion price tag, POLB says, will be construction. To defray costs, the Port says it has actively pursued regional, state and federal funding, winning nearly $360 million in grants awarded from the Los Angeles Country Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the California Transportation Commission, and the Federal Maritime Administration. The Port is also pursuing additional grant opportunities.

“As a landlord port, our job is stewardship and management of the property,” Erickson said. “Pier B is moving forward, but additional grants allow the Port to allocate more money for other major programs like our Channel Deepening Project and the proposed Pier Wind development.”

Pre-construction tasks also include planning for relocating utilities, securing needed rights-of-way, and obtaining other authorizations, such as permits and environmental approvals from other agencies. Additionally, to expand the existing yard, the POLB identified 23 properties it needs to acquire, as well as a portion of one additional property. To date, the Port has signed agreements with owners of 16 properties that have either closed or are in escrow at a total cost of $86.2 million. The sum includes an incentive in addition to the sales price for owners’ timely cooperation. The Port also is helping occupants relocate.

Offers are pending with two property owners, and another five are going through the appraisal process. “Two occupants have already relocated,” Erickson said. “We’re in good shape so far. We’re hoping to complete the acquisition and relocation processes by March 2025.”

Pier B is a major junction connecting the San Pedro Bay ports complex to the Alameda Corridor and major intermodal hubs along the transcontinental rail network. Every week, an average of 90 trains either depart or arrive from the Port of Long Beach on their way to and from destinations across the U.S.

Each double-stacked train moving cargo between the docks and the rest of the nation eliminates as many as 750 truck trips. “In addition to reducing roadway congestion, this goes a long way toward achieving our goals of decarbonizing trade moving through our gateway,” Erickson said.

Currently, about 20% of cargo comes and goes through the San Pedro Bay complex via on-dock rail. The Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility, POLB says, “is critical to helping the ports boost on-dock rail use to 35%, toward achieving their larger goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from port-related sources to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.”

According to POLB, environmental features incorporated into the Pier B program include recycled asphalt and concrete to be used in road and railroad construction materials, drought-tolerant landscaping, and a new storm drain pump station designed to improve water quality within the harbor while reducing flood risk to the area. Only equipment that meets Tier 4 emissions standards—California’s strictest pollution control rankings—will be used during construction. The Port is also evaluating what infrastructure can go into the design now to support zero-emissions locomotives in the future. The likely power sources are battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Additionally, POLB says the Pier B program will contribute nearly $1.6 million to the Port of Long Beach Community Grants Program, a competitive grant program for projects capable of reducing port-related environmental impacts on the local community. The funding will support projects that mitigate GHG and ground-level emissions in neighborhoods experiencing the brunt of freight pollution.

Pier B is primarily operated by Pacific Harbor Line (PHL), the short-line railroad that provides rail dispatching and switching services serving both ports, both Class I railroads and each marine terminal. Recognized as America’s “greenest” railroad for converting its fleet to clean diesel locomotives that dramatically reduce pollution and save fuel, PHL has been testing the nation’s first zero-emissions, zero-idle and low-noise battery electric locomotive on the 96 miles of track connecting marine terminals to the Alameda Corridor. Union Pacific (UP) and BNSF, the two Class I railroads linking the San Pedro Bay ports to the rest of the country, are also running demonstrations of emerging zero-emissions locomotives.

POLB says it recently obtained a $50 million state grant to demonstrate up to 12 zero-emissions locomotives in long-haul and switching operations with its rail partners. Announced in July, the funding is part of more than $383 million California awarded the Port for 10 demonstration projects focused on expanding ship-to-shore power and charging infrastructure and eliminating emissions from harbor craft and yard equipment, in addition to rail operations.

POLB says it continues to work closely with equipment manufacturers, operators, regulators and Southern California Edison to advance the zero-emissions revolution in all aspects of its operations. “It’s a huge challenge and we are embracing it,” said CEO Cordero. “At the Port of Long Beach, a world-class port includes leading the way as environmental stewards of all our precious resources.”

Tags: , ,