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Opposition grows to ports' clean-air plan

Trucking companies and shippers say a ban on exhaust-spewing vehicles would choke their businesses.

September 29, 2007|Ronald D. White and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

The plan to ban dirty trucks at Southern California's ports faces rising opposition from trucking companies, retailers and other powerful international shippers, which say the landmark pollution-fighting proposal would seriously damage their ability to move imported goods.

The fierce resistance is causing some supporters to fear that the centerpiece of the much-heralded clean-air plan may be foundering little more than a year after it was unveiled.

The nation's busiest seaport complex, a gateway for more than 40% of all goods imported to the U.S., announced the plan with great fanfare in June 2006. Starting in 2008, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would begin a $1.8-billion, five-year drive to scrap or retrofit all 16,000 aging short-haul trucks that move goods from the wharves to nearby rail yards or warehouses.

Environmentalists and labor groups raved about the program, which could slash diesel pollution from trucks by 80%.

But a recent economic analysis commissioned by the ports said it would be a great financial burden to replace two-thirds of the truck fleet in favor of vehicles that cost at least $51,500 each instead of $11,500 for "junker trucks." In addition, a shortage of truck drivers would develop and about a third of the ports' small licensed motor carriers would go out of business.

Businesses are voicing their opposition, threatening lawsuits and calling on the Federal Maritime Commission to stop the proposed plan. Impatient supporters are watching the momentum slip.

"The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach get a failing grade for slipping behind in the implementation of their landmark Clean Air Action Plan," said David Pettit, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Southern California Air Program. "Adopting the plan was admirable, but that was the easy part. The implementation is where you show commitment, and, unfortunately, the ports are slipping further and further behind."

The criticism is premature, port officials said, considering that they have yet to finalize a plan. They say they have never lost sight of the goals to clean up the ports while preserving the flow of commerce.

On Friday, S. David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, reiterated that the plan was alive and well but might take longer than expected.

"We all, of course, want to get the truck program up and running," Freeman said. "But quite frankly, when we do the economic analysis, it raises some questions. How does the transition work? If we're going from dirty to clean, the question is at what pace can you make that happen without stopping the flow of goods?"

Funding has hit snags too. Faced with a likely veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) withdrew a bill this month that would have placed a $60 fee on every container shipped through the ports. Both have said they'll try to work out a compromise.

Freeman said that if necessary the ports would impose their own fee, which probably would be paid by the international shippers and large retailers that have soured on the anti-pollution plan.

Freeman also said he understood the impatience of the environmental groups, but "it took us about 10 or 15 years to get into the hole we're in."

That hole is an odd business reality at the two ports. The Western Hemisphere's most efficient harbor moves cargo containers faster than any other port outside of Asia and Europe, experts say. It employs the most modern yard equipment and the fastest and best skilled dockworkers in the U.S. It is increasingly served by experimental technology and the newest rail locomotives.

But the ports also are served by a wheezing fleet of trucks, according to John Husing, a economist who did the port plan analysis. Husing said the situation was the result of a race to the bottom to find drivers willing to haul freight for the lowest pay. As one port official put it, "This is where old trucks go to die."

The ports have proposed a radical restructuring: creating trucking franchises that would employ drivers who currently work as independent owner-operators. Drivers such as 49-year-old Luis Ceja of Long Beach are eager to try it.

Ceja is moving his five-member family from Long Beach to Norwalk to get farther away from diesel pollution. He sees a doctor in Tijuana -- all he can afford on the low wages he says he earns as a port driver -- because of lung problems he attributes to exhaust from old trucks.

"I support this plan. We have to get out of this broken system. This is the only door we can use to get out of it," Ceja said.

Based on Husing's assumptions that substantial fees and higher costs would be required to replace the trucks and to pay drivers about $20 a hour, trucking firms are warning customers that their rates would have to rise. Others say they might drop out of the port business entirely.

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