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Long Beach port's truck loans criticized

The plan to replace old, polluting rigs with cleaner ones will put low-income drivers in debt, groups say.

August 20, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A coalition of consumer, immigrant and civil rights groups warned Tuesday that a Port of Long Beach loan program to help thousands of mostly low-income truck drivers replace old, polluting rigs with newer, cleaner-burning vehicles could plunge the truckers into debt.

Port officials counter that the loans are a bargain and that truckers would not be able to afford new rigs without them. But the coalition foresees a wave of "foreclosures on wheels."

In a prepared statement, Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, compared the plight of independent port drivers to "farmers in America's Deep South, who worked other people's land for a share of the harvest."

"The worries of the drivers hauling containers don't include washed out fields, rotten seeds or infestations of locusts," Bond said. "Instead, their survival is at risk from spikes in the cost of diesel fuel, burdensome truck maintenance and repair costs, or tires blown from carrying overweight containers on hot summer days."

A coalition report condemning the program arranged by Mercedes-Benz/Daimler Truck Finance was expected to be delivered today to the German Embassy in Washington and to Daimler headquarters in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Under terms of the lease-to-loan program, Daimler has promised to back funding for low-emissions trucks worth more than $100,000 to any independent operator, the report said.

The report also alleged that Daimler predicted many drivers would not be able to make payments and that the company has a strong record of debt collection. Daimler officials could not be reached for comment.

Members of the coalition include the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Consumer Federation of California and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

The coalition urged the port to convert its loan program to one similar to the system Daimler created for the Port of Los Angeles.

In that plan, which is strongly supported by the Teamsters and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, investments in new trucks will be handled by trucking companies who employ their drivers. In Long Beach, by comparison, individual drivers are being asked to invest in new trucks.

Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong said the coalition "had it wrong" with its criticism.

He said that the loan program, which requires payments of $500 to $1,000 per month for seven years, was worth about $60,000 to $70,000 for participating drivers. "That's practically giving these trucks away," he said.

The loan programs, which are voluntary, are part of a $2-billion clean trucks program adopted by both ports to slash diesel truck emissions by as much as 80% by retrofitting or replacing old rigs that spew pollution linked to thousands of premature deaths each year in California.

Achieving that goal has been daunting. The coalition's involvement added to the uncertainty facing truckers already overloaded with information, restrictions, mandates, fees and deadlines related to the implementation of the clean trucks program.

Authorities at both ports on Tuesday blamed general confusion for the low number of drivers now expected to submit applications for vehicle loans by the Sept. 4 deadline.

"It's very confusing," said Max Palma, a port driver of 16 years. "A lot of truckers have no idea what's going on with all these different plans and protests, so they're just going with the flow."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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