The Port of Los Angeles will get back $4 million of the nearly $12 million it gave to Swift Transportation Co. Inc. in 2008 to help buy new trucks – a deal other port trucking companies are calling a giveaway of public funds.

Swift and the other companies received grants of $20,000 per truck in the months leading up to the start of the port’s Clean Truck Program, which phased out older, soot-spewing trucks in favor of cleaner models. Phoenix-based Swift was the largest grant recipient, receiving $11.8 million to help buy 591 trucks.

But the grant money required the subsidized trucks to make at least 150 trips in and out of the port each year from 2009 through 2013, with companies paying back $4,000 per year for each truck that failed to meet the requirement. In 2009 and 2010, many Swift trucks didn’t make enough trips and the port says the firm owed $3.8 million for those years.

Swift disagreed, and now the Los Angeles Harbor Commission this month has approved a settlement that calls for Swift to pay $4 million in exchange for being released from the program requirements, meaning the company could take all of its subsidized trucks out of port operation.

Other trucking companies, almost all of which made the required number of trips, say that’s a great deal for Swift, but unfair to companies that followed the rules.

“They basically got an interest-free loan from the Port of L.A.,” said one trucking company executive who asked that his name be withheld.

The executive speculated that Swift, which started serving the port only after receiving the clean-truck grants, might put the trucks to use in the company’s core business of medium- and long-haul trucking.

Swift executives did not return calls for comment, and port officials declined to discuss details of the settlement other than to note it removed the threat of costly litigation.

“The settlement avoids the need for a protracted legal battle,” said port spokesman Phillip Sanfield.

Taking Its Toll

Australian logistics firm Toll Group dispatched an executive to Los Angeles last week to talk to company truck drivers who have called for a union election and filed unfair labor practice charges against the company.

Andrew Ethell, the Melbourne firm’s general manager of group corporate affairs, said he met with drivers to tell them the company isn’t against them joining the Teamsters union, which is organizing the 75 drivers at Toll’s San Pedro location.

“We’re not saying you should vote yes, we’re not saying you should vote no,” Ethell said. “All we’re trying to do is talk to (drivers) about what’s important to us: about building a team, about growing our business.”

Union officials, meanwhile, say Toll is dragging its feet, trying to delay an election. Drivers filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board late last month, but no election date has been set. Toll asked the NLRB for more time to submit briefs listing employees or types of employees the company believes should be part of the union election.

Ethell said those briefs should be filed this week.

Meanwhile, the company is gearing up to fight charges of unfair labor practices. The Teamsters, on behalf of drivers, filed charges saying Toll officials retaliated against pro-union drivers by firing 26 of them last year, interrogated drivers about their organizing activities and intimidated drivers by sending additional security guards to Toll facilities. The NLRB tossed the allegation of retaliatory layoffs, but has allowed other charges to go forward. It offered Toll a chance to settle, but the company has opted to fight the charges in court.

“We reject all of those things,” Ethell said. “We’re waiting to see what the NLRB says about it.”

If the Teamsters are successful in organizing drivers at Toll, it would be the first such success at a company that serves the port in at least four years.

Hat in Hand

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other high-powered Angelenos visit Washington next week on an annual lobbying trip, their top priority will be asking for more funding for local transportation projects.

Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the delegation of more than 150 city and school district officials, and business leaders will be seeking a bump in federal funds that would open the door for a bevy of local projects, including extension of the Metro Red, Green and Exposition lines.

Delegates will ask Congress to push ahead with a program called America Fast Forward, which would pay the interest on local government bonds for transportation projects. Without that program, the city might not be able to move forward with much of Villaraigosa’s ambitious 30/10 plan, which seeks to complete 30 years worth of transportation projects in 10 years.

“If it doesn’t happen, we’ll continue to look for as many other sources of funding as possible,” Toebben said. “But the goal is the get these projects moving faster.”

The lobbying trip is scheduled for March 5 though 7.

Staff reporter James Rufus Koren can be reached at jrkoren@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 225.

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