LA port's contract drivers at center of clean trucks lawsuit

A clean-trucks program provision requiring motor carriers to eliminate independent contractor drivers and replace them with employee drivers at the Port of Los Angeles emerged today as the primary issue in federal litigation between the port and a trucking association.

In the lawsuit being argued this week in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, the American Trucking Associations is challenging the city of Los Angeles over a provision of the Clean Trucks Program at the port complex which aims to phase out owner-operator big rigs from operating on port

The agreement would be "taking an otherwise legal truck'' and eliminating it "under the guise'' of clean air,'' Curtis Whalen, executive director of the ATA-affiliated Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference, testified today.

The ATA argues that the requirement would cut back the number of haulers at the port. The rule, claims ATA attorney Robert Digges, violates federal law which prohibits states and local entities from regulating interstate commerce.

In court today, attorney Steven S. Rosenthal, who represents the city and the port, countered that Los Angeles is legally allowed to impose such rules because they directly influence "safety and security'' at the port.

"The program was intended to address safety and security concerns,'' Rosenthal said, adding the regulation was not intended "to exclude small operators.''

Rosenthal said there was "nothing in the concession contract'' that requires truckers to conduct business differently.

The lawsuit was filed almost two years ago, followed by a raft of hearings and appeals. The program's employee mandate is blocked by a preliminary injunction sought by the ATA and granted by U.S. District Court Judge Chritina A. Snyder.

The case involves other issues, including proposed extensive background checks of drivers, financial disclosure requirements and off-street parking restrictions.

The $1.6 billion Clean Trucks Program has resulted in a 70 percent reduction in diesel truck emissions in and near the ports complex, ports officials have said.