Featured article: Ports of Confusion

By Todd Dills | October 01, 2009

 It’s every operator’s nightmare: new California Air Resources Board regulations. This year’s been particularly chaotic with last-minute regs changes and a hardcore freight downturn making compliance even tougher for cash-strapped operators, who are starting to avoid California altogether. Likewise, shippers are expected to divert traffic from its ports to avoid higher fees. For port and reefer haulers, big enforcement deadlines loom at year’s end.

PortsMaria Ibarra helps operate with her father, Fidel, a single-truck business serving the Southern California ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. They also haul hay and other agricultural commodities in season. In April she learned their 1998 Freightliner would need more than an overhaul to meet legal requirements to continue hauling containers at the ports.

The Los Angeles and Long Beach Clean Trucks programs have banned all pre-1994 engines and require all diesel trucks with 1994-2003 model-year engines to be retrofitted with California Air Resources Board-verified Level 3 particulate filters by the end of this year. Now a statewide drayage rule that takes effect at year-end will mimick the rule in the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports, making it effective at all ports.

Los Angeles reports 5,800 trucks with 2007 or equivalent emissions technology have been registered in its program. Approved trucks are making 60 percent of the gate moves at Port of Los Angeles terminals, says spokesman Arley Baker. 

For owner-operators like the Ibarras, though, getting information about the program has been difficult.

Emissions retrofits or truck replacements are expensive, and the regs themselves – pertaining in varying degrees to reefer engines, truck engines, APU engines, trucks, tires, aero equipment on trailers, and more – are complex and overlapping. Stories of problems obtaining funding are legion among port haulers and others in today’s tight credit situation. Many out-of-state owner-operators now totally avoid California, and others accuse the state of colluding with unions and environmentalists to drive them out of business.

“There have been so many rumors related to what California’s doing,” says Joe Rajkovacz, a 20-year produce hauler who’s also regulatory affairs specialist for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. He calls the year-end statewide drayage rule “the next shoe to fall. It will affect many of our long-haul members.”

Haulers are concerned that, like a reefer unit upgrade requirement that was delayed at the 11th hour, the drayage rule will also be delayed. Both regulations now have Dec. 31 compliance deadlines.

The reefer delay and its injection of supply-and-demand economics into the regulatory landscape has many wondering how seriously to take CARB, says Carl Dolk, controller for Bay Area-based Devine Intermodal, serving the Port of Oakland primarily.

“The reefer regulation was supposed to go in place in July,” Dolk says. “Just a week or two before that deadline they said, ‘Oh never mind, we’re going to extend it.’ The people who invested in new equipment are upset, saying, ‘Our competitors are benefiting from your late change.’”

And that was the second delay for the reefer rule. Watertown, Wis.-based owner-operator DuWayne Marshall, anticipating a rush at the end of 2008, the original 2001-reefer upgrade deadline, plunked down $71,800 in June 200 for a new, specialized spread-axle Utility reefer with a new unit to replace his 2001 Thermo King SB3 and Utility trailer. He says CARB’s “done such a disservice to the thousands of guys who spent millions of dollars to keep up with the rules.”

Owner-operators who had upgraded before the reefer rule was extended were hoping to command higher rates at the peak of the produce season, given that fewer qualified operators would be in the market, to help recoup their investments. “I got lots of calls from guys who were PO’d,” Rajkovacz says. At the same time, he adds, “there were guys who weren’t in compliance then and still won’t be in compliance at the end of the year. They were thrilled.”

Florida-based independent tomato and beef hauler Joe Cicciaro typically spends the California tomato season hauling to and from his primary shipper’s San Antonio, Texas, facility. He operates a 1998 Peterbilt with a 2001 Utility spread-axle refrigerated van with a cooling unit of the same vintage. In anticipation of the reefer rule going into effect, he had been angling for a Florida juice contract for summer runs to replace his California runs.