Truckers at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports got a short reprieve this month from a new government-backed security program that could put some drivers out of the job.

The Transportation Security Administration announced that enrollment in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, beginning this week at one Atlantic port, will not start locally for at least several months.

The program, which will require virtually everyone who enters the country's ports to undergo criminal and immigration background checks to obtain security clearance, could put thousands of illegal immigrant port truckers out of work.

In a study released last month, economist John Husing said the program, coupled with the proposed Clean Trucks Program which would radically overhaul the port's short-haul trucking industry by requiring independent drivers to be employed by companies could result in a significant driver shortage.

"Driver supply, which has effectively been unlimited, isn't going to be anymore," Husing said at a recent trucking conference.

The number of truckers working illegally is unknown, but some estimates put the number at 10 percent to 20 percent.

Enrollment is set to begin Oct. 16 at the Port of Wilmington in Delaware. Next month, the program will commence at 11 other ports around the country, including the Port of Oakland.

The program will require drivers and others to use an electronic card to gain entrance to ports. In the coming months, the TSA plans to start testing the capabilities of the Los Angeles, Long Beach and other ports to operate the card readers.

The delay has drawn criticism from some members of Congress who say the nation's largest ports face the most serious threats and should start the program earlier rather than later. The program is one element of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002.

"Five years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, this card has yet to be implemented," wrote Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., in a recent letter to Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff. "Every day that you wait to roll out the TWIC program is another day that America is less secure."

Negotiations Nearing

The port longshoremen's contract will not expire for more than eight months, but the battle lines are already being drawn.

In a face-to-face interview last week with the Business Journal, Jim McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, said he is hopeful that contract negotiations will be smooth and no work stoppage will be necessary but he is preparing for a wild ride nonetheless.

"There will be pressure on both sides to get this done: to get in that room, negotiate a contract and get out of there without negatively impacting the economy of this country," said McKenna, whose organization represents West Coast shippers and marine terminal operators. "But you have to be prepared for something to happen."

McKenna, who will be the chief negotiator in talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, expects a new health care package and work hours to be some of the main sticking points when negotiations start up in March.

Earlier this year, both sides agreed to start talk in March, four months before the six-year contract expires and two months earlier than usual. They have said they want to avoid the tumult that plagued negotiations in 2002, when workers at the West Coast ports were locked out of their jobs for 10 days, costing the economy as much as $1 billion per day.

But McKenna said the companies he represents viewed the previous negotiations as successful and will stand their ground next year. The 2002 contract resulted in a union concession that allowed the port to begin using new software that tracks cargo.

"I think if you talked to my member companies, they'd tell you that the action taken and the results achieved in 2002 were well worth it," he said.

The union, likewise, is gearing up for a contentious negotiating session, and also expects health care to be a major issue.

"The union has agreed to sit down and talk before the contract expires and if the companies are reasonable we should be able to have an agreement before the contract expires," said Craig Merrilees, the ILWU's communications director. "That's what the union hopes to achieve, but we're going to be prepared if the companies aren't reasonable."

Express Service

Starting next month, travelers will have new options when flying to Monterey, Fresno and Reno.

ExpressJet Airlines, a regional carrier operated by Houston-based ExpressJet Holdings Inc., announced last week it will launch service from Long Beach to the three cities beginning Nov. 11.

The airline said it will offer two daily, non-stop flights to each city, and tickets will cost about $60 each. Formerly owned by Continental Airlines Inc., ExpressJet has operated independently since April.

Staff reporter Richard Clough can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 251, or at .

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