Post-Katrina New Orleans has shown us just how much worse things could get for port trucking. With drivers scattered and trucks ruined, containers clog the docks, and ships still bypass New Orleans. The industry is unable to entice drivers to return to a life of poverty. Elsewhere across the continent, ports grapple with their own versions of the trucking industry meltdown. In Vancouver, British Columbia, intermodal drivers stayed home for over a month last summer, a record protest for North America. That prompted a comprehensive investigation of port trucking in western Canada by a joint federal-provincial task force.
The task force made a remarkable, "emperor-has-no-clothes" declaration: "The trucking industry's inability to respond to changing circumstances and cost increases in a manner that maintains a reasonable income to truckers is clear evidence of market failure." The task force challenged policy-makers to set sustainable trucking rates and a limit to the numbers of motor carriers and drivers.
Meanwhile, in California, the industry rightly worries that terminal expansion will be thwarted by a public more vexed with truckers who do show up for work (bringing pollution, noise and traffic congestion) than with those striking for higher pay and lower fuel prices. New legislation seeking millions in public subsidies for port infrastructure improvements and diesel engine retrofits is likely to be tagged "Dead on Arrival."
Labor, environmental and good government groups in the Golden State and beyond have no stomach for massive handouts to an industry rolling in profits, destroying the quality of life for adjacent communities and impoverishing their neighbors.
The Canadians have given us a rational model for overhauling port trucking. How long will it take for U.S. port authorities and public officials to grasp that the current system is fundamentally flawed? Our ports are promoted as vital economic generators, but those generators will sputter and fail if they are not fixed.