Tuesday, April 20, 2010

ATA vs. Los Angeles Port Clean Truck Plan Heads to Court

Testimony begins Tuesday before a United States District Court judge in Los Angeles in the American Trucking Association’s lawsuit challenging an access license component of the Port of Los Angeles Clean Truck Program.

The court proceedings before District Court Judge Christina Snyder, which are expected to last at least through the end of this week, are likely to focus on the issue of federal preemption – whether local entities such as the port can create and enforce regulations that supersede federal regulations.

The case centers around the port truck scheme that took effect in October 2008 requiring port-servicing drayage firms to sign so-called concession agreements to gain access to port terminals. Firms without such an access license are barred from entering port facilities. The plan was originally conceived by the port as a means to bar older polluting trucks and force drayage firms to use newer and cleaner burning vehicles, thereby cutting port-generated diesel emissions.

To obtain an access license, drayage firms must agree to a long list of port-defined criteria contained in the concession agreements. These include financial, maintenance, insurance, safety, parking and labor criteria.

Shortly before the port program began implementation, the ATA filed suit against the port claiming, among other things, that the concession agreements violated federal interstate commerce laws. The ATA, which did not oppose the environmental aspects of the truck plan – such as progressive bans on older model year trucks – also sought an injunction against the concession agreements.

After an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Snyder issued an injunction against certain criteria contained within the concession agreements, while allowing the port to implement other aspects such as requiring drivers to have federal transportation worker identification.

These injuncted criteria included a contentious requirement that drayage firms must phase out per-load independent owner-operators in favor of per-hour employee drivers by 2013. At the start of the truck program, more than 80 percent of the drayage fleet drivers were independent owner-operators.

The ATA argues that local entities such as the port are prevented by federal deregulation legislation from passing regulations that affect "routes, rates and services" of interstate trucking. Under federal law, the ATA argues, these local regulations are pre-empted by federal interstate commerce laws. Previous court cases have determined that containers, regardless of destination, fall within the bounds of interstate commerce.

The ports have argued that safety and security exemptions provided for within the federal pre-emption language allow the ports to set regulations determining who can and cannot enter the ports.

Since the truck program began, two bans on certain model year trucks have been imposed, with only 2003 or newer model year trucks now able to enter the port. A final ban set to take effect at the end of this year will ban all but 2007 and newer trucks from the port.

Spurred by the bans, the trucking industry and local drivers have put more than 6,000 cleaner-burning 2007 or newer model year trucks into the local drayage fleet. According to port emission monitoring, port-generated diesel emissions have been cut by 70 percent since 2006, which is used as a baseline by the port for air quality.

Supporters of the truck scheme's employee mandate, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters which originally proposed the employee-only mandate to the port, also argue that only per-hour employee drivers can afford to maintain the newer trucks – which cost more than $100,000 and can require thousands of dollars per year to maintain. The employee-only mandate would also allow the Teamsters to fulfill a decades-old national goal of unionizing port drivers. Independent owner-operators are currently prohibited from unionizing under federal law.

Once deliberations are complete in the current case, District Court Judge Christina Snyder could rule immediately or take the matter under consideration and issue a ruling some time in the future. She could ban the concession agreement scheme in its entirety, rule that concession agreements are legal, or rule, as in the injunction case, that only portions of the concession agreements are illegal.

Regardless of the outcome, the case is certain to set a precedent that will be utilized at other ports around the nation, either as a guide to implement identical plans to Los Angeles' or to offer guideposts on how to implement a truck program without facing litigation from the trucking industry.