Time to Move On

Time to Move On

Enough already. Enough of the unnecessary distractions casting a pall over the future of the nation’s largest trade gateway as anything more than a regional port for California and the Southwest. That is not a preordained future for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together handle
40 percent of U.S. international container cargo.

But as things stand today, shippers are pulling their cargo out and the diversions won’t stop until the ports put an end to distractions and prove they represent a competitive and predictable conduit for cargo that many other ports seek.

The March 20 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals supporting the trucking industry’s challenge to the ports’ clean-trucks program could be the turning point needed. There has been no greater distraction than Los Angeles’s requirement that an employee driver be behind the wheel of any truck licensed to haul containers to and from its terminals.

An estimated 98 percent of truck drivers operating at the port complex are independent owner-operators working for trucking companies. To achieve its emissions goals, the port sought to restructure the local drayage industry in a way that would force truckers to become employees and inevitably unionized by the Teamsters, which for years has been trying to organize this work force.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court sided squarely with the American Trucking Associations in essentially ordering the lower court to halt certain aspects of the clean-trucks plan — specifically the incendiary Los Angeles employee-driver mandate.

According to the court, “A mere reading of some of the stated purposes of the Los Angeles Board, for example, underscores an extensive attempt to reshape and control the economics of the drayage industry in one of the largest ports in the nation. One of its goals was to create a market of ‘fewer, generally larger, and more stable (motor carriers).’ ”

The essential problem with that, the court said, is that “there can be no doubt that when Congress adopted the FAAA Act (the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act, which applies to trucking), it intended to broadly pre-empt state laws that were ‘related to a price, route or service’ of a motor carrier. In so doing, Congress intended to avoid the spectacle of state and local laws re-regulating what Congress had sought to deregulate.”

The decision casts grave doubt on whether the employee-driver mandate will ultimately survive. But if it goes down, so what? How does that derail the ports’ efforts to achieve their clean-air objectives and open the door to a resumption in expansion after a six-year standstill?

Noxious emissions are spewed by old trucks, not by those who drive them. Not only do the ports have their own requirements for using newer, less polluting trucks, but the California Air Resources Board this year will impose its own strict emissions rules on drayage trucks operating at ports and intermodal yards throughout the state.

That is why the employee mandate is such a distraction. One would be hard pressed to find anyone in industry opposed to the banishment of old and dirty trucks from Los Angeles-Long Beach. The objectives are supported throughout the supply chain. Several major importers, including Target, Nike and Wal-Mart, are funneling investment into new model trucks in an endorsement of the ports’ objectives.

It was never made clear why an underlying restructuring of the harbor trucking industry was needed to achieve the ports’ clean-air goals. Without a convincing rationale for the employee-driver mandate, industry was left with the impression that the idea wasn’t so much an environmental issue as a campaign by the Teamsters and its allies to bring higher wages to the drayage driver force.

Because the idea would have only made the port less competitive in the eyes of its users, the unmistakable message was that the needs of the port, its tenants and customers are a secondary concern for the city.

That begs the question of how the city feels about the port itself. Equally opaque was why environmentalists were so willing to join themselves at the hip with organized labor to achieve an objective that without such an alliance would have been just as feasible, if not more so.

At this month’s Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference, S. David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, was articulate in arguing that once the harbor air is cleaned up, the port will enjoy a successful and sustainable future and be years ahead of the curve. He is right, and nothing has changed that — not even a court ruling.

Peter Tirschwell is senior adviser of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.