By  on November 14, 2007

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest U.S. seaport complex, have adopted sweeping environmental regulations intended to improve air quality by banning trucks that don't meet the standards.

Critics, including retailers and shippers, have questioned financing and whether the initiative will delay traffic from swiftly moving through the ports. And they caution that dealing with trucking issues on a port-by-port basis will lead to a patchwork of regulations.

The goal of the Clean Truck Program is to rid the seaport complex by 2012 of an estimated 16,000 trucks that don't meet the latest federal air quality requirements. The aim is to cut diesel emissions by 80 percent. The initiative is a move by ports that have struggled with the environmental fallout of handling 40 percent of all U.S. container imports.

"We are concerned that there won't be enough truck capacity," said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Associations. "If there isn't available capacity to move the cargo, we end up having two choices: we have to route it [elsewhere] or it piles up. As it piles up, ironically, the less efficient we become and the more polluting we become."

The National Retail Federation has urged the state — not individual ports — to oversee truck transportation issues and identify financing options for port improvements. "The private sector — principally retailers, importers and exporters — can do their part in helping pay for cleaner harbor trucks through freight rates," Erik Autor, NRF vice president and international trade counsel, said in a statement. "The simplest and most direct way to achieve this goal is for the state to set standards for diesel trucks operating in California."

The critics argue that the ports have inadequately addressed the monetary and infrastructure burdens of making the transition to cleaner vehicles. The cost of replacing substandard trucks will be an estimated $2 billion.

Retailers, shippers, environmentalists, truckers, terminal operators, port authorities and health officials will begin negotiations over how to finance the program. Among the alternatives are: container taxes, gate and/or cargo fees, bonds, loan guarantee programs or grants to independent drivers.

Independent drivers, who earn an average of $12 an hour and constitute the majority of truckers using the ports, would have to pay an estimated $150,000 for new trucks. As cargo continues to surge, at least 3,400 additional drivers are going to be needed by 2012."I don't think we have a preferred [funding] plan, but we want to work with the [port] commissions,'' said Jonathan Gold, vice president, supply chain and customs policy, at the NRF. "We need to make sure that whatever is put forward is fair and equitable.''

Target Corp., Total Transportation Services Inc. and NYK Group have taken funding matters into their own hands, forming the Coalition for Responsible Transportation. Under the coalition's plan, private sector players would help owner-operators purchase or lease newer model trucks through financial assistance or obtaining public grants. Higher freight rates would cover added costs to the independent truckers. Nike and its affiliate company, Converse, joined the coalition last month and said they would switch a portion of their Southern California truck fleet to natural gas vehicles.

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