Port commissioners approve new truck fee; critics say it’s too low to curb emissions

Leaders at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports on Monday approved a new entrance fee of $10 per 20-foot equivalent unit for trucks that fail to comply with low emissions standards yet to be set by the state.

The proposed fee had been criticized by clean air advocacy groups like Breathe LA, who considered the amount too low to effectively curb emissions from drayage trucks traveling to and from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

“The trucks and trains serving the ports, the whole goods movement system, is a significant portion of the pollution in the region and a major source of the health impacts,” Breathe LA President and CEO Marc Carrel said. “People living in communities near the port have higher rates of asthma and other lung diseases, and they’ve been suffering for years as the cargo rates have been increasing.”

A fee of $10, Carrel argued, wouldn’t act as an incentive for trucking companies and owner-operators to switch to low- or zero-emission trucks, and would fail to create adequate funding to support those who do want to purchase less polluting trucks.

“The staff, in putting forward a $10 rate, seems to be focused more on how [the rate] will impact those shipping the goods than those who are living near the ports,” Carrel said. “We can’t make a TV or refrigerator getting to Chicago more important than the long term health of the kids in our community.”

Meanwhile, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expressed concerns that a higher fee may drive shippers to other ports, resulting in local job loss. “We’re all in support of clean air, we just don’t want to see a lot of jobs – that are important to the local economy – go away,” union member Paul Sanchez told commissioners at the joint meeting.

Heather Tomley, managing director of planning and environmental affairs at the Port of Long Beach, said staff had to find a balance between environmental and business concerns. The impact of a fee on cargo movers, and by extension the port’s position among competitors, played a role in staff’s determination of the proposed fee amount, she said.

Carrel and others said that balance is off.

“Even though [the port is] a public agency, their main concern seems to be how much cargo they’re moving, and not how much cargo they’re moving while minimizing the impact on the community,” he said.

Breathe LA wanted a $50 fee.

Daniel Miranda, president of the ILWU’s Local 94, which represents longshoremen at the San Pedro ports, put his union’s position bluntly: “We’ll support this fee of $10, but not a penny more.”

Truck drivers also expressed concerns that the cost of fees would be passed through to them by their employers, adding to existing economic pressure that many said was caused by misclassification of port drivers as independent contractors.

The fee rate will determine the size of a pot of subsidies to help companies transition to cleaner fleets. The availability of low- and zero-emission technology was a factor considered by staff during the process, said Tomley.

“The zero-emission trucks are really in demonstration mode at this point, they’re not commercialized, they’re not available,” she said. The logic: even if a larger pot of money is generated through the fee program, there won’t be adequate technology to spend it on at this point.

But technology evolves quickly and the port should be ready to support companies’ transitions once the cleaner trucks become available, Carrel said.

“Those zero-emission trucks may be ready by 2022, and we won’t have enough money for the subsidies,” he said.

Regardless of the current state of technology, Tomley said that it won’t be the port’s responsibility alone to help companies switch out their diesel trucks for less polluting alternatives.

“The ports aren’t in this alone,” she said, adding that officials are advocating for state and federal funds to support the transition.

The fee approved Monday will generate “a significant amount of funds” at a scale that has not been made available for the drayage industry in this area, she said.

It will also be up to the state to decide which trucks will qualify for low-emissions exceptions from the fee, which will be levied only on trucks that don’t meet still-undefined emissions standards.

As the only ports to implement a fee structure of this kind, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are taking a risk in favor of cleaner air, Tomley said.

“We don’t have a rate like this, we don’t know how the market is going to react to it,” she said.

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