Ricardo Rodriguez Long has helped sell hundreds of new, subsidized clean diesel trucks under a program intended to reduce air pollution at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But the sales manager at Los Angeles Freightliner is scratching his head at the latest proposal for cleaning up the ports: scrapping some of the oldest, most polluting trucks and replacing them with pricey big rigs powered by liquefied natural gas.

"We need to face reality," said Rodriguez Long, whose company does not sell LNG-powered big rigs. "If we were going to go to natural gas, where are you going to refuel? We don't have the infrastructure."

Rodriguez Long is not the only trucking industry official questioning the program, the latest proposal under the ports' landmark Clean Air Action Plan. Approved in November, the plan seeks to make significant reductions in air emissions at the ports complex, the region's single largest polluter.

Although a driver or company accepted into the program will be given up to $144,000 to buy a new rig to replace each old one that is scrapped, so far only two trucking companies have sought the funds. The ports extended the deadline for applications to April 2 from March 19 after several applicants failed to complete their applications by the original deadline, port officials said.

(With $8 million in funding from each port and an additional $6 million from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, there is money to replace 150 trucks.)

"Where's the fueling infrastructure?" wondered another Los Angeles-area trucking company official, who asked not to be named. "You need to phase a market in with commercial reality. The thing that concerns me is the reckless pace at which they're moving."

Officials at the ports have been talking about the new $22 million program to industry officials since February, and are targeting old short haul trucks that carry goods to local warehouses. The trucks are among the most polluting, make the most trips and are the only ones suitable given the limited number of LNG refueling stations outside L.A.

The program specifically requires the short haul drivers to be "frequent callers," making at least seven port trips weekly, though they represent only a portion of the 16,000 trucks that operate out of both ports.

When asked about the limited fueling infrastructure, Paul Johansen, assistant director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles, said the program represents just one of a number of efforts to make the ports more environmentally friendly.

"Our board is very interested in looking at all available technologies that will help us reduce port related air emissions," he said, adding the port even envisions expanding the LNG program should it prove successful over the next few years.

Some takers

Indeed, port officials say that despite the extension of the deadline they have seen expressions of interest from trucking companies and do expect several more applicants before the new deadline passes.

One of the two initial applicants is Southern Counties Express Inc., a Rancho Dominguez-based trucking company with about 130 diesel trucks in its fleet. It has been using an LNG truck for the past four months as part of a preliminary test of the program.

President Brian Griley said the drivers who use the truck give overwhelmingly positive reviews, saying it has all the torque of a diesel truck but none of the bad smell. "There's a lot of skepticism about natural gas trucks, but we are having every success with it," he said.

However, even with his enthusiasm for the trucks, Griley admits that the limited fueling infrastructure could present some problems. In addition, the trucks have a limited range of 300 to 350 miles compared to a range of 500 to 1,000 miles for regular diesel trucks.

The program requires participants to arrange a fueling contract within 30 days of being selected for the program. The guidelines list two options for applicants: building an LNG fueling station or making use of existing LNG stations.

Griley said his company hopes to build its own LNG station, but in the meantime his drivers will use the nearest natural gas station, located at Los Angeles International Airport.

That kind of requirement has all but eliminated independent owner-operators, who are allowed to apply for the program but who say that the fueling options are cost-prohibitive for all but the largest trucking companies.

The Port of Long Beach has released a request for proposals for the construction of an LNG fueling station, but it would not be built before the truck program begins.

Also raising eyebrows is the cost of the LNG trucks. New diesel trucks cost about $100,000 and used rigs can go for as little as $30,000. But LNG trucks can run for upwards of $200,000, so even with the $144,000 grants, truckers would have to shell out more than $50,000 for a new rig that doesn't necessarily have to be replaced.

"It is a very expensive truck," Griley acknowledged. "The only way we'll get these trucks on the road is if there's some grant money to get the cost of these trucks down."

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