In the nearly $2 billion effort to replace the fleet of short-haul trucks at the San Pedro Bay port complex, it will be cargo owners not motor carriers who will subsidize the majority of the cost of the new rigs, port officials decided last week.

Trucking companies were pleased to sidestep the tax, but shippers of low-value stuff such as Southern California's scrap paper and agriculture exporters could be decimated by the port initiative.

Both the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor commissions last week approved a $35 fee that will be assessed on each loaded 20-foot cargo container. Forty-foot containers will be charged a $70 fee each time they enter or leave a port terminal via truck.

The money raised by the fee would help pay for thousands of new, more environmentally friendly trucks that will replace old, smoke-belching trucks.

The ports say this fee will have a negligible impact on retail prices, citing a study by economist John Husing that estimated the average value of goods in each cargo container is roughly $70,000.

But sectors that deal in low-value commodities will bear a much greater burden as a result of the new tax.

"We think the fee is excessive and unfair; we think they need to charge a percentage of the cargo value," said Stephen Young, president of Baldwin Park-based paper exporter Allan Co. "Sooner or later they're going to discourage the business."

Young said the average value of the commodities in each 40-foot container his company exports is just $2,200, making the new cargo fee more than 3 percent of the value of each shipment.

The national scrap paper industry sees, on average, an after-tax profit of about 4 percent.

Allan Co., one of the most prolific exporters in the entire country, sent almost 100,000 containers out of the Los Angeles and Long Beach port in 2006. The scrap paper is sent to countries such as China, where it is turned into packaging material.

Paper is not the only industry that expects to suffer.

Brian McGuire of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition said at last week's meeting that the new fee can be as much as a 10 percent tax on agriculture exports. This could have a profound impact on the industry, he said, because about 40 percent of all cotton exports move through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

"Any kind of per-container fee has a greater definite impact on an (agriculture) export," he said.

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