Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends
Environment & Science

Supreme Court dials 867-5309 as it leaves Port of LA's Clean Trucks Program alone (for now)

The Clean Trucks Program, a centerpiece of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's environmental agenda, remains alive after a Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday.
The Clean Trucks Program, a centerpiece of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's environmental agenda, remains alive after a Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Listen to

Download this 1MB

The US Supreme Court gave the trucking industry a victory when it struck down part of the Port of L.A.'s Clean Trucks Program. But the narrow ruling in American Trucking Association vs. City of Los Angeles left the main part of the program alone, so the port can continue to require that cargo haulers use newer, clean fuel burning trucks.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge 31-year-old songs wherever you find them - especially if they're buried in a Supreme Court decision. 

Justice Elena Kagan revealed herself as a pop aficionado as she described the two provisions of the concession agreements (between the port and the trucking companies) that the Court ruled violated federal law. She wrote:

The two directly at issue here compel the company to (1) affix a placard on each truck with a phone number for reporting environmental or safety concerns (You’ve seen the type: “How am I driving? 213–867–5309”) and (2) submit a plan listing off-street parking locations for each truck when not in service.

"867-5309" was a song by Tommy Tutone that made it to #4 on the Billboard charts in 1982.  Kudos to Justice Kagan (or her clerk) for getting this song stuck in my head.

Even if that reference to the song is humorous, the opinion itself remains serious business for the Port of Los Angeles, for the movement trying to clean up the air around ports, and for clean air advocates around the country.

This opinion is a win for the trucking industry. But it’s not as large as it could have won, and it’s probably not as large as it would have liked.

While the Court knocked out the placard and the off-street parking provisions, the agreements themselves can remain in effect. I asked Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, David Pettit, about that. NRDC lawyers worked alongside the city’s lawyers over the last five years as the legal challenges wended their way up through the courts.  Pettit found some silver linings:

They did not say that the Port can't have a concession agreement with trucking companies.  They did not say that the Port can't ban old trucks.  They did not cast any doubt on the maintenance provision which, in my view, is the most important.  As a practical matter, the Port does not have to change anything in its day-to-day operations.  If the Port finds dirty trucks, those trucks can be forbidden to enter Port property.

Environmentalists had worried about the second question before the Court, which concerned the port’s right to enforce maintenance and financial capability requirements. Under the terms of the concession agreement, the port can deny access to trucks that don’t keep up with these responsibilities. So far, that hasn’t happened. Justice Kagan wrote that the court won't decide this question for now, since the port hasn't tried to enforce that rule. But she also wrote that nothing the court had previously said on the question “prevents a State from taking off the road a vehicle that is contemporaneously out of compliance with such regulations.” In other words, it seems the port still has the right to prevent ongoing violations of maintenance and financial-capability rules on its property.

Questions still abound. The American Trucking Association wasn’t crazy about the idea of concession agreements from the beginning; its lawyers may still seek to undermine them as an enforcement history builds up.

The bottom line for now: if you run another public port elsewhere in the U.S., and you’re interested in making a Clean Trucks Program of your own, you might not want to use L.A.'s model, unless you like multi-year litigation.

Still, one thing the Court clearly established is that a good pop song lives forever.