LONG BEACH - A steady stream of clean trucks has taken over local roadways during the past year following a sweeping and controversial ban on less environmentally friendly trucks by port authorities that has spurred talk of a revolution within the trucking industry at major ports across the country.
The official anniversary of the joint Clean Truck Program implemented by the cities of Long Beach and Los Angeles was Oct. 1, 2009 - a year after trucks built before 1989 were banned access to all port terminals.
But with the New Year came new rules, and banned trucks now include any rig built before 1994 or not retrofitted with exhaust filters to meet modern standards.
By 2012, only trucks meeting federal 2007 emission standards - rigs up to 90 percent cleaner than models built in the 1990s - will be allowed on port property.
"We now have very, very few trucks that don't meet (2007) emission standards, and few remaining trucks (not in compliance) are on order and should be replaced soon," said Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Mike Walter.
To date, officials say the measures have slashed diesel pollution from trucks by 80 percent, though they admit some of that decline is attributable to an unprecedented drop in cargo volumes, down 20 percent since their 2007 peak.
Nonetheless, the results are impressive.
Compared with pre-ban figures, the amount of toxic soot emitted by diesel trucks - known as particulate matter - has dropped by some 200 tons annually. Nitrogen oxides, another smog- forming pollutant, have dropped 74 percent, from about 5,600 tons annually to about 1,450 tons.
Today, some 6,000 trucks built between 2007 and 2010 lumber into and out of the sprawling port complex each day - an estimated half of which have been subsidized by government help, according to port records.
The rest have been purchased privately by companies, and roughly 250 individuals, confident that plenty of work will return once the recession is over, and perhaps more importantly, knowing their certified clean trucks are exempt from $70 gate fees charged to rigs not meeting port standards.
But while officials congratulate each other in public, there remains a deep divide over the future of the Clean Trucks program, most notably over who should ultimately be made responsible for these expensive new trucks and the cleaner rigs preceding them in decades to come.
Just Monday in Oakland, Mayor Ron Dellums announced a four-month postponement of similar rules in a last- ditch agreement to avert a planned strike involving roughly 1,000 drivers who couldn't afford retrofits or replacements.
The temporary amnesty comes after a steady stream of drivers announced in recent weeks they would park their rigs until the state came through with promised financial aid to help replace or retrofit their trucks.
In the Oakland case, many drivers said they simply didn't have the savings or credit needed to purchase the required retrofit equipment or buy a new truck by the Jan. 1 deadline. An exhaust filter costs about $20,000, while a new rig can cost more than $100,000.
In response, Bay Area officials agreed to free up some $11 million on top of the extension to help alleviate the pressure on drivers, a move credited with avoiding a dreaded work stoppage at one of the nation's busiest ports.
As in Long Beach and Los Angeles, most Port of Oakland drivers are self-employed, responsible for their own truck payments, fuel, insurance, maintenance, road taxes, permits and licenses, and their incomes, meager to begin with according to most economists, have been further undercut by the recession.
Although a similar postponement was approved in mid-December by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, officials say those needing it represent less than 10 percent of the total work force.
Unlike in Oakland, which is just now enforcing truck turnovers, many self- employed drivers here are leasing rigs directly from local motor carriers, an unintended development of the clean- truck scheme that has allowed drivers to mostly bypass direct involvement with lenders and banks.
Many drivers are immigrants with little or no credit history, making them vulnerable to high interest rates or outright loan rejections.
To compensate for higher costs associated with the new trucks, some trucks are being leased to two or more drivers, with each worker taking turns in the driver's seat while splitting the cost of payments. The practice is believed to be widespread, possibly contributing to the rapid reduction in the total truck fleet in recent months - a trend that has outpaced the decline in cargo volumes.
In 2007, port authorities estimated some 16,000 trucks served Long Beach and Los Angeles. That total has now dropped between 25 percent and 30 percent to an estimated 11,000 rigs - more than the roughly 20 percent total drop in cargo volumes since the 2007 peak.
Meanwhile, port authorities in Seattle, New York, New Jersey, San Diego, Florida and Portland are pursuing similar plans, but many are awaiting the outcome of a court case involving Los Angeles and the American Trucking Association before deciding which direction to proceed.
On the surface, the truck bans and timelines implemented by Long Beach and Los Angeles are the same, providing a uniform compliance date for companies and drivers often serving customers in both cities.
However, implementation and enforcement measures vary widely between the cities.
After initially joining Los Angeles in a taxicab-style concession model, Long Beach dropped it in October in favor of a plan in which self-employed drivers retain the right to contract out for work. Such a business model has been the norm in port operations throughout the country since federal deregulation of trucking in 1980.
While the system has driven down port trucking costs, critics claim those savings have come at the expense of drivers, who are now forced to pay higher truck payments and related costs without an equivalent rise in payment rates.
The Port of Los Angeles is attempting to uphold the concession model, in which port trucking companies are gradually made responsible for their rigs in exchange for exclusive access to port properties. The changeover, designed to increase from 20 percent of total hauls carried by employee drivers in 2010 to 100 percent in 2013, has been challenged in federal court as a violation of federal law.
A court date is scheduled for March.
The driving force behind the fight for concession agreements is what Los Angeles terms "market sustainability." They see concessions as the most efficient, most realistic and least costly in terms of enforcement and government subsidies for drivers now and in years to come. They also believe transferring ownership of trucks to companies would make future fleet turnovers more stable, as a corporation or small business is more likely to receive credit to buy a new truck than an individual driver.
Overall, economists estimate the complete truck turnover in local ports, estimated to cost about $2 billion, will result in minimal increases for consumer goods, the most widely cited example being an extra 3 to 5 cents for a pair of sneakers shipped through Long Beach or Los Angeles.