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Safe harbors

Long Beach and L.A. port officials should vote for container fees that will lead to cleaner air.

December 17, 2007

Last month, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach approved the skeleton of a plan that could eventually save lives by dramatically reducing cancer-causing diesel emissions from the ports' trucking fleet. This week, they should put some much-needed and too-long-awaited flesh on the bones.

Harbor commissioners in Long Beach are to decide today whether to impose a $35 fee on each 20-foot cargo container that moves in or out of the port by truck; leaders of the next-door L.A. port will consider the same jointly developed plan on Thursday. The money will go into a fund that will be used to help truckers -- most of whom make from $30,000 to $40,000 a year and can't possibly afford to upgrade their equipment on their own -- replace highly polluting older trucks with newer, cleaner models.

Bills to impose a port container fee have been stymied for years in the Legislature, plagued by opposition from shippers and jurisdictional squabbles among elected officials. That's probably just as well, because Sacramento has amply demonstrated that it is incapable of distributing money for port improvements fairly.

Even though the two local ports move 85% of the goods that pass through California, the state Transportation Commission decided last month that only 60% of the Proposition 1B bond money dedicated to goods-movement infrastructure improvements would go to the five-county region through which that cargo runs. The beauty of a fee collected and distributed by local officials rather than state decision-makers is that it assures the money will go to vital projects here, not tangential places with political clout like the Bay Area. In the coming months, the local ports are expected to consider another fee for cargo that's carried by train rather than truck, with the money to be used for rail connections and other key infrastructure.

By 2012, the ports' Clean Truck Plan is expected to reduce dangerous emissions from short-haul trucks by 80%; in that year, only trucks built in 2007 or later will be allowed through the gates. This should help reduce the estimated 1,200 annual deaths in Southern California caused by port pollution, yet the standards will be impossible to meet unless the ports come up with a way to pay for thousands of expensive new trucks. If both ports approve the container fees this week, everybody in Southern California will be able to breathe a little easier.

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