Cleaning the Big Apple

November 25, 2008 at 8:41 pm Leave a comment

The Big Apple is a big opportunity for clean truck advocates. The Port of New York and New Jersey is the third largest container port in the nation, handling more than 5 million containers and 30 million tons of ocean cargo a year. Approximately 9,000 drayage truckers serve the port authority’s terminals in New Jersey and the New York City boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Some type of clean trucks program is inevitable in New York, says Christopher Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. However, that doesn’t mean an L.A.-style ban on owner-operators at the port is a given.

“There are a variety of different strategies depending on what part of the world you’re attempting to deal with,” Ward said.

The Teamsters union, a strong advocate of the clean trucks plan at the San Pedro Bay ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, wants similar programs to spread to ports across the country, along with a requirement that drayage drivers be company employees, and therefore eligible for union membership.

Speaking at a panel discussion sponsored by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a liberal think tank, in New York last month, Ward noted that Los Angeles and Long Beach are divided over whether owner-operators should be allowed to work at port terminals. “That’s something that New York and New Jersey needs to be careful about, only because we perhaps have a higher number of independent truckers,” Ward said.

He also wants to ensure that money spent to make New York’s port greener stays at the port. “When you are providing incentives — either buying the truck, financing the truck, providing loans against trucks — you want to make sure that (the trucks) stay within the region.”

As the LA-Long Beach program gains attention at ports nationwide, trucking and shipper groups are challenging it.

The National Industrial Transportation League and the National Association of Waterfront Employers recently filed in support of the American Trucking Associations’ lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The ATA, which is appealing a District Court’s refusal to suspend the clean trucks program pending a final ruling on the plan’s merits, claims the program illegally alters rates, routes and services.

The Bush administration also filed an amicus brief in support of the appeal, citing federal preemption concerns.

Advocates of the clean truck program, including the Teamsters, environmentalists and community activists, have slammed the industry lawsuits as “immoral,” decried “diesel death zones” around ports and linked environmental progress with unionization and the creation of “green jobs.”

The Teamsters have long sought a way to organize, or re-organize, intermodal truckers. The drayage industry at many ports was unionized before the deregulation of trucking in 1980. Many small, unionized drayage companies went out of business in the following decade, creating an opening for owner-operators and the current model of nonunion drayage.

Now the Teamsters want to reverse the tide. “We succeeded in changing the law (at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach) forever through our partnerships and organizers,” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said at a rally in July. “Now we’ve got clean air and clean trucks. We won there, and that’s the beginning of a great struggle.”

The Port of Los Angeles version of the clean truck plan makes the union’s goal easier by banning owner-operators from working the port and requiring all drayage truckers be carrier employees. Long Beach didn’t go as far — its program allows trucking companies that are licensed to serve the port to contract with owner-operators or hire employee drivers.

Port interests in New York maintain safety should be a major reason for putting a clean truck plan in place.

The LA-Long Beach plans hold drayage companies applying for permits accountable for vehicle maintenance, emissions standards, and safety and security compliance. The goal is to flush 16,000 aging diesel trucks from the streets. That’s an idea some New Yorkers find appealing.

“When I first got into the harbor business, it was a common saying that trucks went to the ports to die,” said J. David Stein, executive director of Nation’sPort, an advocacy group for the Port of New York and New Jersey.

“Somehow that didn’t seem to meet the test of what was proper and responsible,” he said. “You don’t want trucks on life support carrying 40 tons of sensitive goods on the freeways. It’s not about who’s right and wrong, but how to set up a system where you minimize a catastrophic failure. We should be doing everything in our power to minimize that.”

With incentives that provide up to $30,000 for each truck that meets strict emissions standards, Southern California’s version of the program has given trucking companies that have long specialized in long-haul trucking a reason to expand their services into drayage.

Truckload giants Swift Transportation, Knight Transportation and dedicated fleet carrier National Retail Systems have dedicated part of their fleets to intermodal drayage at Los Angeles and Long Beach. NRS is headquartered in Secaucus, N.J., within shouting distance of Port Newark and Port Elizabeth.

But not all traditional long-haul trucking companies agree on the merits of pursuing such a strategy. Werner Enterprises has looked “and continues to talk” to ports around the country, including Southern California. So far, the Omaha, Neb.-based carrier isn’t convinced there’s a business case to be made for entering port drayage.

“The underlying economics are still suspect,” said Werner Chief Operating Officer Derek J. Leathers. “Meaning, can you make money at intermodal drayage as a large carrier? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there’s not yet been an example of a large multinational company that has effectively been able to manage port drays and do so profitably. The owner-operator model and the very low cost model that exists today is difficult to compete with.”

As part of a large nonunion trucking company, Leathers is also concerned about potential disruptions that can occur at port complexes where labor unions are involved — and about the potential inroads that the Teamsters could make at his company.

“I think when you look at our industry’s margins, any transportation or trucking company would have significant concerns about being organized, especially when you lay it against the backdrop of all-time record bankruptcies.”
By John Gallagher
Pacific Shipper


Entry filed under: Dive In, Maritime, Working Waterfront. Tags: , , , , .

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