When the Port of Long Beach approved a landmark truck replacement program last week with a key change sought by motor carriers, Great Freight Inc. got a new lease on life literally.

President Michael Lightman was readying to shutter the trucking company if the port had required that his 45 contract drivers be hired as employees a proposal the port had flirted with but ultimately rejected.

The requirement would have likely bankrupted the Long Beach company, but now Lightman is looking forward to reviving a business that has been on cruise control for almost a year.

"I was prepared to close down," he said. "Now, I can renew my lease, I can make some capital improvements knowing that I will be able to stay in business."

With the Feb. 19 decision by the Board of Harbor Commissioners to move ahead with a clean air program that will replace thousands of short haul trucks serving the port but allow the current system of truck owner-operators to continue motor carriers breathed a sigh of relief.

Many have begun negotiating renewed leases for their facilities, contacting customers to set transportation rates and making tentative arrangements to transition to cleaner fleets after months of uncertainty.

But there is still an air of caution throughout the industry as even the most optimistic companies acknowledge that the plan faces hurdles from Long Beach's sister port in Los Angeles and could change drastically before its October start date.

Both ports have agreed that the current fleet of older dirty diesel trucks that ferry cargo to local warehouses needs to be replaced, but Los Angeles is still backing a proposal that would require motor carriers to hire the contract drivers which total more than 16,000 at both ports.

Still, last week's decision was the first good news in months for many.

"I think it's a win," said Kevin Dukesherer, director of Progressive Transportation Services Inc., a Bell-based motor carrier with about 200 trucks in California.

Getting ready

Lightman has not made any investments in his facilities since last May, after proposals for an employee-based truck program put his company's future viability in doubt, he said.

Lightman, like many of the estimated 1,000 motor carriers that serve the ports, is attempting to negotiate transportation rates with customers and renew leases for his facilities in preparation for the impending truck program.

And should the Los Angeles port decide to retain its proposed employee trucker provision, Lightman said he is planning to make a go of it by only servicing the Long Beach port. He's also expecting that costs will rise no matter what.

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