Local Ports Try to Sign Up Truckers for 'Clean Trucks' Program

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In six weeks, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles will stop letting older diesel trucks pick up cargo. That ban is part of the Clean Trucks program. Environmental activists and truck drivers are protesting some of that program's employment rules today during a Clean Truck Center dedication on Terminal Island. The trucking industry is suing over other provisions. That means the port complex is working hard to get trucking companies to participate. KPCC's Molly Peterson has the story.

Molly Peterson: Portable billboards advertise the Clean Truck Center around the port, where drivers can come kick the tires on trucks like this liquid natural gas tractor.

[Sound of liquid natural gas truck engine revving]

Kelly Mills: This is truly a class A tractor, 80,000 pound capability. You can have a conversation in the cab, and at the end of the day, the drivers get out of the cab, and they don't smell like diesel, which is a nice feeling.

Peterson: Kelly Mills is showing off these trucks for Inland Kenworth; he's got 200 of them ready for the road. Federal credits and state grants can shave $70,000 off their sticker price; the ports are helping with loans and paperwork. All Mills needs now are some customers.

Mills: Over the past two days? Over the past two days, we've had about four or five. LMC's are companies that have 30-plus trucks, so we're definitely concentrating on the longer haul.

Peterson: Signing companies up for the Clean Trucks program has been another kind of haul. The American Trucking Association sued to block agreements the ports have made to put the plan in place, and so some companies say they're waiting until that case shakes out. But L.A. Harbor Commission President David Freeman says the ports will start banning polluting trucks on time.

David Freeman: You know, the whole crowd is floating down that river that begins in Egypt and goes all over the world. It's called "denial." They don't understand this is going to happen.

Peterson: The Terminal Island Clean Truck Center aims to look cheerful and busy. Under Kelly green tents, staffers can talk to drivers about the new federal transportation workers' identity cards, and offer health insurance through the Port of Long Beach.

At 2 in the afternoon on a weekday, they're mostly talking to each other. Still, port officials see progress here. Cliff Gladstein's helping to run the center. Last month, it was a ghost town, he said; now, traffic's up.

Cliff Gladstein: Yesterday we had 15 trucks parked over there. Right now, we'll go inside. There's been quite a few people going in and out of the Clean Truck center, but it's been pretty busy this week.

Peterson: The few drivers on site wear jeans and tuck green fiber bags under their arms, freebies from the tents outside. In this trailer, one is talking requirements with a counselor. Like 95 percent of conversations here, it's in Spanish.

[Sound of question and answer session about Clean Trucks program application process in Spanish]

Peterson: Bigger companies don't register here. Center manager Cliff Gladstein sends counselors to them.

Gladstein: We actually had a trucking company in here just a few moments ago, right before you guys arrived. Thirty-five trucks. We're going to go to their facilities. We take little laptop computers over to their offices, and we're going to do the work there.

Peterson: Slow signups are part of why the Port of L.A. is deferring some rules, like the one that requires companies to obtain off-street parking for trucks. The port's deputy director John Holmes said he and his staff have worked to reassure the cargo companies.

John Holmes: We don't want a company to lease or buy a piece of property, and then say "Ooh, I didn't need that." So, we've really looked at the program and we've put the parking thing on hold, and we're working to try to identify those things that have the biggest impact on the, on the, you know, the trucking companies.

Peterson: Those tweaks are paying off with bigger motor carriers. Two national trucking companies, Swift and Knight, just announced they'll sign on to L.A.'s plan after the port added incentives for already-clean fleets. But some independent drivers say they're still hanging back.

Rigo Hernandez: Signing up means buying a new truck. Being responsible for a new truck. I bring home like 500, 600 dollars a week, you know?

Peterson: Rigo Hernandez of Torrance has a wife and two kids, with a third on the way. The company he drives for contracts 50 independents like him. Hernandez says he can't afford to sign up at either port. And, he doesn't like the Clean Trucks Center.

Hernandez: From the first person to, you know, to welcome you, to the last one you talk, all they want to do is see how can you get a new truck.

Peterson: At last report, Long Beach has registered nearly 1,000 trucks for its program. After the two major companies signed on, L.A. says 3,000 trucks will qualify there. At least 17,000 trucks move in and out of the port complex right now, so both ports have a lot of work ahead before the October 1st Clean Trucks deadline.