Port trucking company fights economy, environmental fees

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

Trucks from the Ability-Tri Modal trucking company owned by Josh Owen

Trucking companies that work the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have had a busy year. The uncertain economy has driven container traffic down. New environmental fees have added costs. A legal battle over the ports’ Clean Trucks Plan continues — fueled by a labor dispute over who will pay for cleaner equipment. First we heard from an independent driver. Here's the story of a third-generation trucking company owner.

Josh Owen’s Aloha-style shirt is suited to this oddly warm December day. He drives me to warehouses where crews empty shipping containers fresh from the dock and pile cargo into trucks headed for the Midwest.

"You're taking freight out of this container that came out of the ocean. Shot over on this bridge straight out into an outbound trailer," he says.

900 feet of ramps deposit shipments from major retailers like Payless shoes, Amazon.com, and Pottery Barn. But there are fewer of those shipments: Owen says his gross revenue’s down by about a third from four years ago.

One retailer he works with dropped orders by 30 percent during each of the last two Januarys. "We're a good gauge of what the economy is going to do," he says. "We're the first to see it go bad and we're the first to see it go up."

In his 30s, Owen’s relatively young to run Ability-Tri Modal trucking. But he began to work in the family business sweeping loading docks as a kid. He blames federal trucking deregulation during the 1980s for cutthroat competition now.

"When I do a request for proposal for a customer, this could be a 70- to 120-page proposal that I'm turning in with all my background on my company, all my other certifications, blah, blah, blah…so on and so on," he says. He slaps the table. "They'll go to the very back page and look at my rate."

Six decades after his grandfather founded Ability Tri-Modal, Owen says he sees environmental and economic sense in cleaner equipment. "The more miles per gallon you can get, the better it is on your bottom line. So if we can reduce the amount of fuel we have to burn, it's better for us. And in the long term it's better for the environment as well."

Owen lives in Long Beach with a one-year-old and a four-year-old, and he believes clean air is valuable to his childrens' health. But he objects to parts of the Clean Trucks program. He says environmental fees on containers make it hard for the ports — and anyone who serves them — to stay competitive.

"Even the suggestion of fees is going to drive somebody to move away," he says. "When you're looking at Walmart and somebody like a Payless Shoes. You're looking at milli-cents. Fractions of a penny in a cost. So when you sit there and somebody just willy-nilly goes $100 a container! Nope. You just threw yourself out of the market."

That’s a big part of the reason Owen’s joined an industry coalition that challenges the legal agreements the ports want with trucking companies. He’s also got harsh words for the Port of LA requirement that companies employ drivers, not just contract with them.

Ability Tri-Modal pays its drivers for every trip they make to the port from the company’s base in Carson: 5 trips on a good day, 3-and-a-half on an average one.

"It really comes down to an incentive issue. If you, Molly, were going to be paid 30 dollars an hour regardless of whether you worked 100 percent or 50 percent or 25 percent. How hard would you work? Where's the incentive?"

Independent drivers he contracts with get help with leasing clean diesel trucks from Cascade Sierra Solutions, a nonprofit with the goal of placing better technology on the road. Owen harbors mixed feelings about climate change legislation, but he speaks highly of sustainability.

He says he wants a good reputation among drivers. That’s because he knows that some companies take advantage of drivers — though he won’t name them. "And they're horrible and probably shouldn't be in business. But all in all, the majority of trucking companies want to be as compliant as possible because it only benefits them."

Owen wants trucking company owners to decide on their own how to green their industry. He can’t stop working the Long Beach and LA harbors while the lawsuit continues. But he says that environmental mandates could permanently drive the Southland’s cargo industry away.

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