It will be an unhappy new year for thousands of truck drivers who work the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with older vehicles: The latest stage of the Clean Trucks Program takes effect Jan. 1, banning as many as 8,000 of their rigs.

These drivers have a tough choice. They can try to get about $100,000 in financing to purchase a new truck or spend $20,000 retrofitting an older engine to meet federal 2007 emissions standards. But the timing’s bad. It’s been tough for many independent truckers to do that. And small trucking firms, struggling with less revenue due to the cargo slowdown, aren’t in any position to add staff.

“The money is just not there for me to buy a truck,” said Jose Raul Barton, a 39-year-old independent trucker from Downey who’s hauled freight at the port for 12 years. “And trucking firms, which are better equipped to finance the trucks, are not hiring right now because there is no business. I’m unemployed as of January as far as I’m concerned; I’m not the only one.”

The program began October 2008 when the ports banned about 2,000 pre-1989 trucks. Now about half of the estimated 16,000 trucks working the ports won’t be allowed there.

The Jan. 1 restriction applies to all trucks made before 1994. It requires trucks made between 1994 and 2003 to have their engine retrofitted with an approved diesel emission control system. The California Air Resources Board has also approved a similar ban at all ports and rail yards statewide.

The ports and the air board gave temporary relief to truckers who have ordered a new truck or a retrofit and are waiting for delivery or installation. They can operate their older vehicles until April 30.

That’s of some help to companies such as Randy Thomas Trucking in South Los Angeles. Three of his five independent contract drivers are in line for new trucks. As a result, Thomas said the extension will allow him to stay open for a few more months. But he loses his two other drivers next month because of the ban, and his business will suffer.

“Many of us are holding on and seeing what shakes out,” Thomas said. “But the landscape will look different. The number of smaller firms like mine and independent operators will shrink for sure.”

Thomas was featured prominently in an article in the Oct. 12 issue of the Business Journal.

Port Profits Hold

The Long Beach City Council voted Dec. 15 to reject plans for a ballot measure that would have allowed for the city to siphon more of its port’s profits. The vote quelled outrage from business and transportation industry groups.

A proposal spearheaded by Councilwoman Rae Gabelich suggested a few ways of increasing the amount the city takes from the port’s profits from its current 10 percent. She was pushing for the proposal to go to a committee that could place the proposal on a ballot in April. But the proposal was voted down 7-2.

Business groups vehemently opposed the idea, saying the port’s profits should go into funding its infrastructure and environmental improvements instead of paying for beach maintenance.

“I’m glad that the city is learning to live within its means,” said Randy Gordon, president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the plan. “The city should stop robbing the port’s revenue.”

Chamber leaders and freight companies saw the proposal as another city raid on port money. They cited an agreement reached between the city and the port this summer under which port money will be used to pay off a $35 million debt for construction of the aquarium and Convention Center. The port will be reimbursed through tax increments. City officials also want $1.3 million from the port to go toward a lagoon restoration project.

Firm Expands

At a time when many local transportation firms are shrinking operations, Fast Lane Transportation Inc., based in Wilmington, is stretching out.

Fast Lane, which provides a variety of transportation-related services, including port drayage and cargo container storage, recently opened its fourth location: an 80-acre truck and rail hub and equipment depot in Adelanto that was purchased for $9.2 million. Fast Lane already has locations in Wilmington, Long Beach and Oakland.

“Our proximity to San Bernardino helps offer excellent access to major crossroads in California for freight moving north and south as well as west-to-east routes to Las Vegas and beyond,” said Patrick Wilson, Fast Lane’s president. The company plans to hire as many as 15 people for the Adelanto location.

Like many other companies, Fast Lane’s trucking business has been hit hard: It’s down about 15 percent from last year. But its equipment storage department has been doing considerably better, up 25 percent compared with 2008. That’s related to the economic downturn, too.

“There is more idle equipment out there, such as cargo containers and chassis, because there is less need for it,” Wilson said. “So that’s helped us stay afloat.”

Staff reporter Francisco Vara-Orta can be reached at fvara-orta@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 549-5225, ext. 241.

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