The Port of Los Angeles on Thursday approved an employee-based truck replacement program that officials say will reshape the harbor trucking industry.

Los Angeles harbor commissioners broke ranks with their Long Beach counterparts by adopting a plan that will end the use of independent drivers and force licensed motor carriers to hire employees. Long Beach officials considered the provision, but rejected it, opting for a plan that will allow companies to use independent drivers, employees or a combination of the two.

In approving the plan, Los Angeles officials cited a recent study that suggested an employee-based plan will be more sustainable in the long run, though it will likely lead to some loss of business as costs go up.

"There hasn't been anything that this board has faced that's been more challenging than this," said Geraldine Knatz, Los Angeles port executive director, at Thursday's board meeting. "We know there are risks of cargo diversion. It's not an easy decision, but it's the right decision."

The plan still requires approval by the Los Angeles City Council.

The $2.2 billion program, part of the two ports' jointly adopted Clean Air Action Plan, will replace nearly all of the estimated 16,800 short-haul diesel trucks in San Pedro Bay with cleaner burning models. The move, which will be funded largely by the ports and a recently adopted cargo fee, is expected to reduce diesel truck emissions by 80 percent.

"This historic vote is a victory for our health, our environment and our economy," said David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles harbor commission.

The program is set to begin in October with the ban of all trucks built before 1989. The program will be phased in over several years, culminating in a 2012 ban of all trucks not meeting 2007 emission standards. But Knatz said in the latest estimations, the port could achieve its goal by 2010.

Currently, about 85 percent of port drivers are classified as independent owner-operators, who own their trucks and are responsible for fuel, maintenance and other costs. By switching to employees, the motor carriers will be required to purchase the new trucks, with port assistance.

The employee-based program has been fiercely resisted by local trucking companies that say the labor-backed plan will open the door for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to organize port drivers. The American Trucking Association issued a statement Thursday affirming its intention to challenge the program in court.

"By adopting a union-designed scheme that, in the name of cleaner air, bans independent owner-operator drivers from providing port transport service even if they drive new clean trucks L.A. port and city officials have now guaranteed that the next venue for the proposal will be in the courts," the 37,000-member association said in its letter.

Thomas Russell, general counsel for the port, made a brief statement before the vote, saying, "We have concluded (the plan is) legally defensible."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.