Surprise, surprise

So Oct. 1 is the date. Barring a judicial reversal, that's when the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will be free to require port drayage companies to obtain operating concessions to send their trucks in and out of the ports.

There was some surprise in the industry last week when a federal judge refused to block the concessions from taking effect as part of the ports' clean-air plan. But the ruling isn't the last word in this saga. U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder said truckers have a good shot at knocking down two of the three reasons the ports claim they aren't bound by a federal law pre-empting state or local regulation of transportation.

Snyder expressed doubt about the ports' claims that (1) they're exempt from the law because they're located on tidelands; and (2) through their facilities, they are participants in the port trucking market. But she said the ports' third argument -- that trucking concessions can be justified by safety and security considerations -- is likely to hold up when the case goes to trial.

The American Trucking Associations, which sought the injunction against the concession plan, says it's confident that it will prevail when its lawsuit against the concession plans gets a full hearing sometime next year.

There are certain to be additional surprises before then -- and possibly even before Oct. 1, since no one expects the ports to be ready to have the concession program and its accompanying fees ready by the scheduled start date.

The Southern California ports controversy has been a fascinating drama with a diverse cast of characters -- the ports, environmentalists, the Teamsters, truckers, terminal operators, ship lines, and now the courts.

A bit player in this show has been the Federal Maritime Commission, but the FMC could take a lead role if it decides to do so. The commission has jurisdiction over ports, and can request information, open a formal investigation or seek a court injunction if it believes it can prove actions that cause an unreasonable increase in transportation costs or decrease in transportation services.

When the LA-Long Beach ports and marine terminals formed a discussion agreement to permit them to work out a clean-air plan under antitrust immunity, they had to submit it to the FMC. The commission allowed the agreement to take effect, but said it would keep a close eye on developments.

It seems to be doing so. The commission has sent the ports two rounds of detailed questions, and FMC staff were in Southern California last week to attend the court hearing on the ATA's injunction request and to meet with port officials and trucking companies.

Will the FMC decide to take center stage in this controversy? If it does, that could be another surprise.

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7121, or at

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