The Golden Rhinoceros Stampede

For Christmas, my mother gave my wife “Southern Californialand: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome,” Charles Phoenix’s coffee-table collection of amateur 35mm slides snapped by locals during the 40s thru the 70s. In this book, people show off their new cars and swimming pools, marvel at the mountains above the desert dusted with snow, and capture for posterity landmarks like Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Brown Derby, Disneyland and the globe at Leisure World. 

The photos burst with the giddy optimism that California used to embody. The skies are blue, the clothes pastel. Even the oil derricks are presented with love. In one shot, a man sits poolside, a tam o’shanter on top of his head. On the little table next to him, two bottles of booze and a pack of Camels. His little grin says, “this is paradise.”carwash2.jpg

What is the greater Los Angeles area now? For some people, it is still paradise, but few say so out loud.  It’s home. It’s a place to work. It’s a place that used to be great, but now just seems necessary.  It’s not a place Americans abandon New Jersey or Oklahoma for anymore.  It’s just like those places, except with much better weather–once an overwhelming advantage, but now just a factor, and for businesses, a not very persuasive factor anymore.

Since the post-Cold War military cutbacks, Los Angeles’ economy has been pretty stagnant. That’s a period of 15 years.  The Bay Area has undergone tech-driven boom-and-bust cycles during that period, while Southern California has seen mostly bust, followed by slow recovery, then bust–never a real across-the-board, everybody’s-happy boom. 

flu kid.jpgLA catches the nation’s colds, but when all the kids are playing outside again, we’re still wearing our bathrobes.

Defense/aerospace, and filmed entertainment used to be signatures of the Southern California economy, but the growth in those industries is largely going elsewhere. But the one area where growth has been steady and significant is international trade, which was worth $264 billion in 2004. When Tom Bradley and others boasted about LA’s position on the Pacific Rim, they were right on. LAX and the two big ports are how Pacific Rim countries get their products to North American markets. The boxes of stuff get picked up by trucks, some of it winds up on trains, and away they go, to destinations north and east, loaded onto vehicles with big wheels and big diesel engines.

truck stop.jpgI’ve started to wonder: How much does the LA area really benefit from all this?  Of course–there are jobs associated with international trade, some 400,000 of them with the addition of 42,600 last year.

But what kind of positive ripples do these kinds of jobs generate? Are we educating youth in California to join the global trade industry? Is there such a thing? If my son wants to take part in the growing global trade industry in LA, what courses should he take? Truck driving? Warehouse management? He could be an entrepreneur, selling imports to the U.S. market. But he doesn’t have to be in Southern California to do that. The trucks and trains that roll through Wilmington and Long Beach will bring everything to him, wherever he decides to locate his business.  

The Inland Empire is trying to grow a job base to match with its booming population, but many of the big new commercial projects are warehouses and distribution centers. They’re important, and of course people work there, but do they stimulate the creation of other businesses? When I’ve been out in those areas, the only service businesses I see are truck stops where you can fill your tank, microwave a burrito, buy a bag of sunflower seeds and hit the head.

Is trade facilitating the kind of sturdy, sustainable economic engine that aerospace/defense once was? Will trade bring back the glory days that those kodachrome slides depicted?

The world increasingly looks at Los Angeles as an immense depot, a place where hundreds of thousands of boxes carrying the world’s manufactured goods and raw materials change from one mode of transportation to another–ships to trains, jets to trucks, trucks to rail–and then roll on to their final destinations.

What we get out of all this are a lot of highways broken down by the weight of the truckloads — footprints from a golden rhinoceros stampede. And, we get bad air. Not just the ubiquitous bad air created by Southern California’s inversion layer, sunlight and civilization, but highly toxic diesel exhaust that hangs around around these trade centers and transportation corridors. 

According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District:

  • Diesel exhaust is responsible for about 70 percent of the total cancer risk from air pollution;
  • Emissions from mobile sources — including cars and trucks as well as ships, trains and planes — account for about 90 percent of the cancer risk.  Emissions from businesses and industry are responsible for the remaining 10 percent; and
  • The highest cancer risk occurs in south Los Angeles County — including the port area– and along major freeways.

Those numbers from the district’s MATES-II study of air toxins in 1999.  MATES-III comes out in March 2006, and it will provide significantly more detail, along with fresher information.  

Environmental groups like the Coalition for Clean Air and the Natural Resources Defense Council have advocated policies to abolish “dirty diesel” for years. My guess is, MATES-III will spotlight the problem, but also show that years of high-profile activism have had a marginal effect at best.  Nonetheless, an ever-brewing revolt in communities near the ports and airports, combined with the environmental community’s success in monkey-wrenching lawsuits has the stewards of the Southern California economy worried:

“There has been a major shift in the image of the international trade industry in Southern California,” observed (Jack) Kyser (of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation). “It has gone from the fair-haired child to wearing the proverbial black hat. It is blamed for pollution and congestion, and a growing number of the region’s residents would like to either see growth at the ports capped, or worse yet see the ports go away, despite the growth of jobs with good wages.”

The tone of Kyser’s quote is: “How could we be so crazy?”  The frustration for the LA area is this: Most sources of diesel exhaust aren’t regulated locally–and virtually none of the sources associated with international trade. The container ships that sail into LA and Long Beach harbors are regulated by the international body that enforces the MARPOL treaty. Trucks, airlines and trains are regulated federally, and the lobbies for those carriers have far more pull with the ruling class in Washington D.C. than do California’s state or local governments. Remember: Most other states benefit economically from the international trade that rolls through Southern California. As do big companies like Wal-Mart, Sears/K-Mart, and Home Depot.

Local authorities have the bully pulpit, or they can try to cut deals, but they do so knowing that other ports, other cities, even other countries, would pounce if we made things too expensive for the trade industry here.  In Barstow the other night, we saw an example of what local authorities can do to rein in the pollution from railroads — and what they can’t. From the Desert Dispatch:

Although turnout was low for community members, the information presented by BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) representatives clarified some of the major changes that the company will be making in communities like Barstow in order to help lower the toxic emissions from diesel engines.

BNSF Environmental Program Development Manager Michael Stanfill outlined some of the major goals of the memorandum, including the following:

* A state-wide idling reduction program: The program uses anti-idling devices and employee training to ensure that locomotives do not stay on longer than necessary.

“We’re starting the blitz of the idle-reduction side next week,” Stanfill said. The training will teach employees how long to leave the locomotives on before it is necessary to turn them off.

BNSF is also asking for help with this goal. Community members that see a locomotive idling for long periods of time should call 800-832-5452 with the four-digit identification number to report it.

* Use of low-sulfur diesel fuel: The MOU states that the railroads achieve maximum use of low-sulfur diesel six years earlier than required by federal regulations.

* Reduce visible emissions: Locomotives that are emitting visible smoke will not be returned to use until they are complying with regulations.

BNSF is asking for community help with this goal as well. If people see locomotives emitting continuous smoke, citizens should call 800-832-5452 with the locomotive’s four-digit identification number to report it. Stanfill also said BNSF is guaranteeing that all of its locomotives will be tested annually for visible emissions.

The MOU referenced is between the two major rail freight haulers, BNSF and Union Pacific, and the state Air Resources Board. It’s probably the best the regulators could get. It looks to me like it primarily relies on the good faith of BNSF to follow through. The citizen enforcement elements are a nice PR touch, but not much of a threat.

The railroads with their fixed rails running through dozens of cities always need something from local and state government, so this is a trade-off they’re willing to make.  Public leverage over airlines is a sometime thing; most of the power the airlines respect resides in the FAA.  The City of LA’s two airports give them something to negotiate with, but that tool has never been very effective.  The two seaports can talk to the big international shippers, but won’t try to dictate to them. Shippers don’t need to establish a good image in the U.S.  Americans don’t buy anything directly from Maersk, or P & O Nedloyd, so they don’t worry about what we think of them.  

In an attempt to manage the coming trade v. the environment clash, the LA Economic Development Corporation helped form the  Southern California Leadership Council, with former governors Wilson, Davis, Brown and Deukmejian serving as joint figureheads.  Clearly, the powers-that-be are worried that too much unruly local and environmental activism might chase international trade away, so they’ve promised to tackle trade’s biggest vulnerability:

The first policy issue selected by the Leadership Council is a “Green Freight Initiative.”

“The objective is to support the development and implementation of a near-term plan to rally business and public sector leaders around the ideas of reducing diesel pollution, modernizing our goods movement and trade infrastructure, and increasing the management, security, safety and velocity of our freight corridor system. There are a million new good paying jobs related to the initiative,” (Robert) Wolf, former chairman of the California Transportation Commission, said. The tax revenue generated by these new jobs over the next 25-30 years will help us pay for the community and environmental improvements we need now and fund critical health, public safety and education services in the future.

“There are smart ways to reduce truck traffic impact on our highways, freeing up more room for cars and reducing air emission impacts while building community friendly infrastructure,” added (Ray) Holdsworth, former Chair of the California Chamber. 

rhino durer.jpgMy advice to the four ex-governors would be to look at the communities that will be cited in the upcoming MATES-III study as carrying a disproportionate share of the pollutant load.  You’ll find, I suspect, that these communities do not see much direct benefit from international trade, and they’re all about to get reminded of the cost. Their strategy should be to decrease the rhinoceros tracks in those areas; and find a way to leave behind more rhinoceros steaks.


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