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BAD BUSINESS

A triple whammy

The rejection of a fee on cargo containers deals several blows to Southern California.

October 04, 2008

Of all the bills passed in 2008 by the Legislature, the one that might have had the biggest positive effect on the lives of Southern Californians was vetoed this week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. With a slash of his pen, the governor simultaneously damaged the region's economy, choked its roadways and ensured that thousands more people will die annually because of the pollution associated with moving goods to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The bill was SB 974, which would have imposed a $60 fee on each cargo container passing through the ports and spent the money on clean-air measures and infrastructure to help goods move faster and more efficiently -- for example, grade separations to prevent freight trains from blocking traffic at intersections where roads meet rails. Schwarzenegger had vetoed a similar bill from Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) in 2006, but Lowenthal retooled it to overcome objections from Southern California lawmakers and the governor. That still wasn't enough for Schwarzenegger.

The governor's reasons for his veto were at best naive and at worst intentionally deceptive. He complained that the bill wouldn't have provided any money to clean the San Joaquin Valley's filthy air (it would have, by helping replace dirty trucks that pass through the valley with cleaner ones); that it didn't dedicate any money to improve roadways (which would have changed the nature of the container fee from a user fee to an illegal tax); and that projects like grade separations don't do anything to speed cargo and thus don't benefit the railroads and shippers that have to foot the bill (which is simply false).

A frustrated Lowenthal says he won't submit another container-fee bill next year. That means if the local ports want to improve their infrastructure, they're going to have to do it themselves.

The ports have already approved two separate container fees: a $70-per-container charge to replace pollution-spewing diesel trucks serving the ports with newer, cleaner models, and a $30-per-container fee to pay for infrastructure on port property. With the failure of Lowenthal's bill, that second fee should be doubled, with the money dedicated to improvements for off-port rail bottlenecks as far away as Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Such a fee would face legal challenges and would require cooperation among officeholders throughout the region. They should get busy: Efficient cargo networks are too important to this state's economy to be left to the whim of a misguided governor.

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