It's a radical plan that's drawing radically different responses.


The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are proposing to scrap or retrofit well over 10,000 polluting trucks that move cargo in and out of the nation's largest port complex.


The truck drivers who now service the ports as independent contractors and who would become employees under the plan call it a godsend. But smaller trucking companies say the $1.8 billion plan is a prescription for bankruptcy.


"It's very Draconian," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference of the American Trucking Association, which is considering a legal challenge to the plan. "It's one thing to clean the air; it's another thing to change the whole business model."


The two ports in a bold proposal unveiled this month that surprised even environmentalists who have worked for years to reduce port-related pollution are proposing a Clean Trucks Program that calls for replacing or retrofitting nearly all of the 16,000 short-haul trucks that serve the ports.


Under the plan, the ports will phase out independent drivers by awarding franchises to trucking companies that would be forced to grant their drivers employee status, likely raising their pay and providing them benefits for the first time.


The ports have promised to subsidize more than half of the costs, but with big rigs costing upwards of $25,000 to retrofit and $100,000 to buy new, that could still leave the trucking companies a big expense.


The exact percentage of the subsidy will be a function of how much money the ports can scrape together to pay for the ambitious proposal. Port officials believe the plan could be implemented over five years through a mix of capital funds, money from a $20 billion statewide transportation bond and truck fees, as well as other sources.


Details are to be worked out before the plan is formally considered in July, but the ports are counting on truck fees as a substantial funding source. The initial plan calls for charging a fee ranging from $34 to $54 for each truck that enters the ports but does not meet 2007 emission standards until those trucks are retrofitted or replaced. Trucks built in 1994 or before would eventually be banned since they could not be adequately retrofitted.


Port officials contend that record-setting trade each year at the two ports the world's fifth largest port complex will make it possible for trucking firms to absorb the costs of the program.


But Valerie Liese, president of Ontario-based Jack Jones Trucking Inc., said her company's drivers have mostly stopped serving the ports because doing business there already has become too expensive.


And with some companies planning to spend as much as $25,000 to retrofit their trucks, Liese expects most small motor carriers to be driven out of the ports.


"It's going to be hard enough on the big guys. But for the little guys it will be even harder," she said.


Tracking truckers

An estimated 90 percent of the 16,000 truckers serving the ports are currently classified as independent contractors. Trucking companies contract with these workers predominantly Latino immigrants to haul shipments from the port to a warehouse.


By classifying drivers as independent contractors, companies do not have to provide such benefits as health insurance or workers' compensation. And wages are low, generally amounting to about $25,000 to $35,000 a year for full time drivers, who have to work more than 40 hours per week.


Independent truckers such as Felipe Lopez, who supports a wife and three children working 12 hours a day, six days a week, is one of those truckers. He says he does not have any health benefits and cannot afford to go to the doctor to treat a sore back stemming from his long work hours.


"With the wages I'm making right now, it's very difficult to make a living," said the 35-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant, through a translator. "I'm afraid to go to my doctor in case he tells me I need surgery and I can't pay for it."


Lopez said he was excited about the prospect of being an employee.


"Right now, companies are taking advantage of our independent contractor status to avoid paying for Social Security benefits and for workers' comp. It will be very beneficial to me because I will have better wages and better benefits," he said.


Though the plan is ostensibly geared toward reducing diesel emissions, port officials say they did give consideration to improving truck drivers' working conditions. But for the ports, it was more a matter of practicality than benevolence.


Paul Johansen, assistant director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles, said officials wanted to do away with independent owner-operators because they were difficult to track.


In order to ensure that the program is enforceable, the port needed a way to keep track of the trucks and make sure they were coming into compliance. The ports are seeking to cut diesel truck emissions by 80 percent when the plan is fully implemented.


"It all comes down to the ability to control the assets that we're trying to replace," he said. "This way we can assure that our standards are being met."


Johansen also said that by improving working conditions they hoped to reduce turnover among truckers and create a more stable workforce.


But an executive with a local trucking company that serves the ports said the plan will drive the small trucking companies out of business, punishing those that have helped the ports achieve record growth. Additionally, the executive, who asked that his name not be used, said the working conditions for truck drivers are not as poor as some labor groups claim.


However, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents the drivers, contends the working conditions are just as bad as the drivers say.


"It is unbelievably difficult to survive for the truckers that work out of the ports," Spencer said. "They're treated like dirt. They're taken advantage of."

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