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Pay the freight

It's only fair that retailers and shippers should share the costs of cleaning up the state's major ports.

June 25, 2007

WHEN CALIFORNIANS passed Proposition 1B last year, they agreed to spend $3.2 billion in bond money to speed cargo to and from the state's ports and clean the air fouled by trucks and container ships. With taxpayers doing their share, it's only fair for retailers and shippers, which will benefit from the port projects, to pay up as well. A bill to share the costs is now making its second run through the Legislature, but it's getting flak from a surprising source: the ports themselves.

The bill, SB 974 from Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), would impose a $30 fee on each 20-foot container passing through the state's three major ports. A similar bill was vetoed last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the new version targets his concerns. It adds Oakland to the list of ports (last year it applied to only Long Beach and Los Angeles) and ensures that the money will be spent in the region that it's collected from.

It's unclear whether the new bill, which the Senate passed and which now awaits approval in the Assembly, will pass muster with Schwarzenegger. It's certainly unpopular with retailers, which would be stuck paying the fee, and the California Chamber of Commerce, which calls it one of the worst "job-killer" bills in this year's legislative session. Yet rejecting the bill would kill more jobs than passing it. Without infrastructure improvements, the ports of L.A. and Long Beach are expected to reach capacity within five years, bringing growth in California's booming international trade industry to a grinding halt.

Port officials, meanwhile, fret that the bill excludes most highway projects from getting container-fee money and that it leaves funding decisions up to state boards rather than the ports. That's as it should be. States can't impose taxes that interfere with interstate commerce, but user fees -- which are spent on projects that directly benefit those paying the fees -- are legal. If the container fee money went to highways, it would expose California to lawsuits under the Constitution's commerce clause because that would benefit motorists as much as truckers. And because the movement of goods involves numerous counties, it's appropriate to leave decisions to the state.

The ports do have one valid point. The bill says that the infrastructure money will be cut off if the ports of L.A. and Long Beach don't meet the ambitious yearly goals set up in a 2006 clean-air plan. Lowenthal's office says that's because if the ports don't grow green, they shouldn't grow at all. Yet blocking money needed for clean rail projects could simply slow environmental improvements, and the goals rely on new technology that may not be developed in time. Further, progress could be slowed by lawsuits. The bill would be stronger without that provision. With or without it, the bill deserves the governor's signature.

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