The Port of Long Beach will vote Tuesday on a revamped business model for its $2 billion clean air program that will not require short-haul truck drivers to become motor carrier employees.

The announcement is a turnabout in strategy by the port, which has been criticized by the trucking industry for how it plans to implement a joint plan with the Port of Los Angeles to replace 16,000 short-haul diesel trucks with cleaner-burning models.

The announcement also marks a sharp policy break between the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports.

The two ports' original plan called for requiring all of the truckers most of whom now operate as independent drivers to become motor carrier employees. The ports had maintained the requirement would make implementation and operation of the program easier, but the carriers said it would drive many of them out of business and open the door for unionization.

Under the new Long Beach plan, the port will offer three financing options to truckers who want to access a $2 billion fund to replace their trucks: lease to own, grants for an engine retrofit or grants for the purchase of a new truck.

The employee driver provision is still backed by all members of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commission and is strongly supported by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

However, a majority of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners had resisted the measure, saying it would mire the program in legal challenges and detract from the ultimate goal of cleaning the air.

The ports have said they will approve identical plans, but it is unclear whether the Los Angeles harbor commission would support the independent driver model. The disagreement could slow down final adoption of the clean air program.

Though the plan has not been passed yet, the trucking industry welcomed the latest development. "It's certainly a very positive step forward," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the intermodal motor carriers conference of the American Trucking Association. "We're quite pleased that Long Beach is trying to break the logjam and move toward clean air."

However, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which includes health, labor, environmental and immigrant rights groups, issued a statement Friday denouncing the change.

"We are deeply disturbed that the Long Beach Port has rejected a comprehensive and sustainable solution supported by over 30 environmental, public health, community, clergy and labor organizations," the coalition said. "Long Beach's piece-meal proposal provides no workable or enforceable mechanism to guarantee impoverished drivers will keep a new fleet of clean trucks on the road and able to move cargo without falling into old, dirty disrepair in a few short years."

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