A $1.8 billion plan that would replace virtually all of the 16,000 short-haul trucks serving the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports is facing growing opposition that threatens to delay or even derail it.

Nearly a year after the twin ports adopted their wide-ranging Clean Air Action Plan, the Port of Los Angeles last week adopted a timeline progressively tightening regulations on the pollution-spewing trucks. The timeline culminates in a 2012 ban for rigs not meeting 2007 emission standards.

The vote sidestepped the more controversial question of whether the mostly independent drivers should be required to work for trucking companies, but it was still riddled with discord when Long Beach hastily canceled its own vote.

"We've spent a year on this and gone nowhere," said one trucking industry official who asked not to be named. "It seems like everyone is more worried about the political fallout."

The two ports together, the single largest source of dirty air in Los Angeles are seeking to drastically reduce their air pollution through a variety of measures. The largest and most costly element is a proposal to replace an aging fleet of short-haul trucks that carry imported and exported goods that pass through the ports.

The Long Beach board had planned to vote on its own implementation timeline last week that would have given truckers until 2014 to meet 2007 emission standards. But it canceled its vote minutes before it was scheduled after learning that Los Angeles was planning to go ahead with a tighter timeline.

Long Beach is scheduled to vote Nov. 5 on a revised timeline with a shorter 2012 final implementation date.

But faced with the rising disapproval of key parts of the plan by a variety of interests, including shippers, retailers and the U.S. Maritime Administration, there is widespread uncertainty about the plan's future. That is something acknowledged by even some of its strongest advocates, such as Los Angeles Harbor Commission President David Freeman, who is pushing for final approval in December.

"We have created great uncertainty in this industry that we have to eliminate. We have the rest of the job to do," said Freeman after last week's vote, which prompted only one person in the audience to clap.

"Well, one person liked it. That's about as good as we can do," Freeman dryly added.

Rising costs

The timeline adopted by the Port of Los Angeles would begin in October 2008 by banning all trucks manufactured prior to 1989. But the timeline, which still requires the City Council's approval, is hardly the most controversial element of the plan.

The clean air program also would require short-haul drivers to become employees of motor carriers. Currently, the vast majority of drivers are independent contractors who work for more than 1,000 small companies that contract with retailers and others to carry their goods throughout the region.

The ports have maintained that the employee provision is necessary to ensure their assets are protected. Each port would fund a portion of the cost of the new trucks which are projected to cost from $100,000 to $200,000 and they plan on holding the first lien. Making the drivers employees is supposed to help the ports keep track of the trucks and also ensure they are largely being used for port calls.

But trucking companies complain that hiring employee drivers would drive up costs for the companies, which already operate on thin margins, and force many of them out of business.

"The costs of this program will be phenomenal," said Ron Guss, president of Intermodal West Inc., a Pico Rivera motor carrier with 85 trucks. "They want employees; we don't. Let's get the owner-operators in clean trucks and we got clean air. The model works."

Months ago, the trucking industry claimed as many as 1,000 or more of the 1,300 licensed motor carriers could be driven out of business by switching to an employer-employee model.

Since then a study prepared by Southern California economist John Husing at the request of the ports concluded that under the most likely scenario about 30 percent of motor carriers would be driven out of business. Also, transportation costs for trucking companies could go up by as much as 80 percent.

Although the conclusions are not as dire as feared, the trucking industry has seized on the study to bolster its opposition. Moreover, several trucking groups are reiterating threats to challenge the plan in court if it passes. Most recently, the U.S. Maritime Administration came out against the program, saying the threat of litigation is one the ports should take seriously.

"I am most concerned that the environmental benefits of reducing truck-source emissions not be lost or diluted by needless litigation or inadvertent impairment of the flow of the nation's commerce," said Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton in an Oct. 23 letter to both ports.

Push back

So far none of the opposition has prompted harbor commissioners in either city to come out against the plan, which is a response to pressure by community groups, environmentalists and other public officials to do something about its dirty air.

The port complex produces more than 20 percent of all the air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin, which remains among the smoggiest regions in the country. Indeed, environmentalists have chastised the ports for pushing the program's start date back to October from January.

Even so, speculation is swirling behind the scenes that the plan may be losing support among port commissioners. Some of that discord appeared to surface during an Oct. 12 joint meeting of the two ports when Mike Walter, a Long Beach commissioner, said he wanted the plan at least initially to deal only with pollution and not address the employment status of the drivers.

"I do not want other issues in that plan," he said.

However, there are few other signs that the commissioners are wavering.

Long Beach Harbor Commission President Mario Cordero, a strong plan supporter, acknowledged that the clean air program has met obstacles, but still believes that it will be largely implemented as currently envisioned.

"No one said this would be easy," he said.

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