By January 1st, 2011, the dirtiest of the diesel trucks spewing pollution on their way to and from the ports of New York and New Jersey may get a much-needed retirement. That's the Port Authority's goal for replacing more than 600 pre-1994 trucks that service area seaports with newer, cleaner models. The shift will cut regional air pollution, reducing emissions of diesel particulate matter from port trucking by more than 23 percent, according to Port Authority projections. Given that diesel truck pollution contributes to 1,159 premature deaths a year in New York and cost the state as much as $9.6 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity, the effort to clean up dirty port trucking is welcome progress. Yet if Congress gave the Port Authority the power to act decisively, we could do far more, improving both air quality and the quality of port trucking jobs.
Today, the nation's most innovative port project, the Port of Los Angeles Clean Truck Program, has been partially blocked by a lawsuit from the American Trucking Associations. The ATA argues that federal law preempts local entities like ports from establishing standards for the trucking industry, even when it profoundly impacts local communities. As a result, the impressive gains already made by LA's Clean Truck Program -- replacing more than 6,600 dirty, diesel polluting trucks, removing 30 tons of diesel particulate matter from the Southern California air every year and cutting port trucking emissions 80 percent -- are at risk. If New Yorkers want to follow L.A.'s footsteps and successfully clean up our own ports, it's in our interest to see the federal law updated to give ports the unambiguous authority to set standards for local truck operations.
One of the smartest aspects of L.A.'s Clean Truck Program is its recognition that, to properly maintain clean trucks and preserve their environmental benefits, the underlying economics of the port trucking industry must be addressed.
At a 2008 Drum Major Institute event discussing the relevance of the Port of Los Angeles policy to New York, L.A. economic development official Sean Arian explained the problem:
The ports are relying on a Third World business model focused on independent-operator truckers, based on low wages and even lower responsibilities, and where the environmental, social, and public safety costs of the industry are externalized onto the citizens of Los Angeles. It is a broken system in which multi-billion-dollar corporations for years have left the day-to-day work of moving cargo to non-capitalized independent operators and anonymous freelance truck drivers that are scraping by on an average of $24,000 a year... They cannot afford new tires, they cannot afford health insurance, much less what we are asking them to do today, which is to maintain new $100,000 trucks and then replace them again in five years.
Research confirms that independent port truckers earning $10 to $11 an hour can face unsustainable costs as high as $8,500 a year to maintain new, cleaner trucks -- yet if the trucks are not properly maintained, diesel emissions will skyrocket and environmental gains will be lost. The situation is similar at New York and New Jersey ports, where independent-operator truck drivers average just $28,000 a year and lack health insurance.
The Port of Los Angeles realized that they could not ask independent-operator truck drivers who were barely making ends meet to shoulder the burden for environmental improvements. Instead, the port acted to ensure that well-capitalized trucking companies would take responsibility for the purchase and upkeep of the dirty trucks, and in the process, take responsibility for the working conditions of the truck drivers, treating them as employees rather than independent contractors. This would give port truckers the same protections to things like fair wages and hours, and occupational health and safety that other working people have. Yet it is this employee driver provision that triggered the lawsuit from the American Trucking Associations.
To emulate -- and even surpass -- the best aspects of the Port of Los Angeles Clean Truck Program, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first needs clear authority from Congress to regulate port trucking. Then it should go beyond banning the dirtiest trucks to address the economics of an industry that generates not only bad air, but poor-quality jobs.