Clean Victory

Clean Victory

If there was a single, overwhelming piece of evidence arguing against changing federal law to allow ports to regulate trucking, it came last week at a press conference on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the clean-trucks program at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Los Angeles Times headline said it all: “Diesel Emissions Down Drastically at Ports of L.A., Long Beach.”

Truck emissions from port activity are on track to be down 80 percent by next year, nearly three years ahead of schedule. And that result was achieved even though not all the trucks hauling containers in and out of marine terminals are the most modern low-emission rigs that will soon become standard throughout the port complex. In other words, the clean-trucks program as it functions today is working. Diesel emissions from harbor trucking that have been blamed for myriad health problems in the region are receding as a public policy emergency.

The program was created to fix the problem of harmful truck emissions and in so doing repair the social contract between the ports and their local communities. It is well ahead of schedule in accomplishing that goal, which begs the question, if the clean-trucks program is on such a clear path to success, why is there any need to change federal law to strengthen seaports’ ability to regulate local trucking?

In recent weeks, a sort of national movement has taken flight in which the strange bedfellows of labor and environmentalists have rallied around the cause of amending a law called the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act as a way to rein in dirty trucks at U.S. seaports.

Spearheaded by pro-labor Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the bid is aimed at clearing the legal path for ports to require that drivers be employees of trucking companies rather than independent contractors, as most today are, thus making them eligible for union membership. The trade community, which supports the goal of clean air around seaports, has been asking why employee drivers are so necessary to achieve clean air goals. With abundant evidence the program is achieving its goals without the employee-driver mandate, the question has taken on a sharper edge. “Look at the success the program has had — that speaks volumes in itself,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation.

Those seeking a change to the law believe that because of the intensely competitive port trucking industry, the independent contractors that dominate among drivers will be unable to afford the investment needed to maintain their rigs at required standards. Having achieved clean air goals, the theory goes, the results won’t be sustainable and dirty trucks will seep back into the harbor.

That thinking says little about the ability of a state such as California that has long been committed to air quality to enforce regulation. Not only has the state Clean Air Resources Board implemented its own rules on harbor trucking, but ports such as Los Angeles, Oakland and New York-New Jersey that are on record supporting the change in federal law have the ability on their own to ban out-of-date trucks from their facilities. In Los Angeles, the PortCheck, RFID-based truck registry that identifies all trucks arriving at terminals is up and running and has contributed to the rapid phase-out of pre-1989 vehicles. The idea that independent owner-operators are incapable of complying with regulations is a stretch when this sector has long been subject to multiple regulations.

“It is inaccurate to allege or to imply that owner-operators are not capable of meeting safety, emissions, or security standards when they already are obliged to meet various standards as a condition for operating — and do so now,” a group of trade associations wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar debunking allegations made by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.

And the trade groups have support for their point from the very port that is working so hard to change federal law. Villaraigosa said 5,500 of the 14,000 trucks at the port are now the most modern low-emissions trucks. The share of low-emissions trucks will only grow as time passes and new restrictions kick in. As Villaraigosa said at a press conference at the port, “This is the most successful effort to clean a port in the world . . . Nobody thought it was possible to retrofit 5,000 trucks in a year, and we’re at 5,500 and growing.”

The question may be in Oberstar’s hands. The FAAA as well as the current highway bill were recently extended, so the question is whether Oberstar will put into reauthorizing legislation the changes that labor and environmental groups are seeking. He has not yet shown his hand.

But one thing is clear, which is that the debate so far has revealed a lot about this issue and the underlying motives of those involved. Labor and environmentalists have tried desperately to paint in environmental terms what is at heart an attempt to introduce a new union — and an entire new layer of costs — into the international trade process. At a time when the U.S. is trying to get back on its feet economically and once again become competitive, now is not the time to be fundamentally changing the port industry.

Peter Tirshwell is senior vice president of strategy at The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7158, or at