Plans to vote on the controversial program to reduce diesel truck emissions which may wipe out more than 1,000 small trucking companies at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are mired in delays and will be postponed for the second time this year.

Though the ports have not yet made an announcement, Los Angeles Harbor Commission President David Freeman said last week that because of the delays, they would not be able to begin the program by the target date.

"The kickoff date will be much later than January," he said. "This is going to be a major adjustment and we have to make sure that we continue to move the goods."

The decision to postpone the vote comes in the wake of a new study that suggests a number of independent truckers would be put out of business by the plan and that the delivery of cargo would be negatively affected, though the plan would ultimately save money and cut pollution.

After pushing the vote back from the original July date, the harbor commissioners for the two ports had planned to make a decision on the Clean Trucks Program this month. They have yet to schedule a vote however, amid concerns over the possible impact of the program on the port trucking industry.

"Our timeline obviously was not met but I'm very optimistic that we are going to move forward soon," Long Beach Harbor Commission President Mario Cordero said in an interview last week. "Because of the magnitude of the plan, there are still some items that need to be worked out. I'm hopeful that we can do it within the next 30 days."

But sources familiar with the situation say the vote could be pushed back as late as November.

The $1.8 billion plan, part of the ports' sweeping environmental program known as the Clean Air Action Plan, seeks to reduce diesel truck emissions by as much as 80 percent by replacing the oldest trucks with newer less-polluting rigs. With an estimated 16,000 trucks serving the ports, the smoke-belching vehicles are blamed for being a major contributor to the high rates of asthma, lung disease and cancer in and around San Pedro.

But the program has drawn strong criticism from the trucking industry for its requirement that all drivers, most of whom are classified as independent owner operators, become employees of trucking companies. This, motor carriers say, will drive up their costs including higher driver salaries, worker benefits and truck maintenance and force the majority of the 1,300 port trucking companies out of business.

What's more, the ports are proposing to charge the motor carriers a fee of about $50 every time a truck that has not met emissions requirements enters the ports.

With no formal announcement yet from the ports regarding the vote and implementation schedule, the delays are already making problems for the motor carriers that serve the port, who are having difficulty planning for next year.

"Typically in the first quarter we negotiate contracts with customers, and we don't know what our costs are going to be and we don't know how many drivers we will have," said Patty Senecal, head of government affairs for International Warehouse Logistics Association. "We need to know what's going on."

The companies are faced with uncertainty over a variety of elements, including expected insurance costs, staff levels and lease agreements.

Study suggests problems

Earlier this month, Southern California economist John Husing presented an independent study on the economic effects of the program. The report predicted that many motor carriers would likely be unable to survive once the program goes into effect. The Clean Trucks Program, combined with a new federal government credentialing initiative, could leave the ports several thousand drivers short, which would debilitate local goods movement.

But Husing said most of the industry changes would take place within the first year of the five-year implementation schedule.

According to the report, the economic benefits of the program could be as much as $5 billion or more within the next two decades. Most of that would derive from the reduced health problems and as many as 1,450 fewer premature deaths that would result from putting cleaner-burning diesel trucks on the road.

The report, though encouraging for both the economic and environmental aspects of the program, presented a dire picture for truckers and is giving pause to many of those who rely on uninterrupted goods movement.

Both Freeman and Cordero cited the study as one of the reasons the harbor commissioners delayed their vote. Cordero said they want to keep the concept of the program true to the original proposal, but in an effort to keep the port trucking industry intact and ensure that there are enough drivers, the commissioners are still considering changing some elements.

Some observers expect that the truck fee, which many companies say would force them into bankruptcy, will be consolidated with another fee to be paid by shippers.

Additionally, the controversial requirement that drivers become employees is under consideration for elimination, which Cordero said "may be an outside possibility."

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