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L.A., State Officials Seek Ways to Cut Truck Traffic

Times Staff Writer

His cargo includes a stack of boxes marked “EASTER MERCHANDISE--RUSH TO SALES FLOOR,” but Dan Rivas is in no hurry. Shifting gears, checking mirrors, Rivas eases his 45-foot tractor-trailer into the northbound slow lane of the Long Beach Freeway. Another rig roars past, the hare to Rivas’ tortoise.

“The biggest problem is the hot-rodders,” Rivas says. “Following too close, going too fast--that’s about all there is to accidents. . . . Guys who get paid by the job, work 16, 17 hours a day--those are the guys piling ‘em up.”

These are hard times to be a trucker--or a commuter. Truckers who once prided themselves as the “knights of the road” have a new image: a wall of steel closing fast in the commuter’s rear-view mirror, a house-sized box lying sideways across three lanes up ahead.

Now, in Los Angeles and Sacramento, steps are being taken toward trucking restrictions that could alter the lives of thousands of Southern Californians.

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Mayor Tom Bradley’s office is pushing an elaborate, controversial measure intended to reduce by 50% the number of three-axle trucks on Los Angeles surface streets during peak traffic hours, primarily by shifting more shipping operations into the night.

The proposal--which calls for issuing trucks medallions that would allow them to operate during peak morning commute hours, peak evening commute hours, or both--has been endorsed by one City Council committee and is expected to be heard by the full council within a few weeks.

Meanwhile, Gov. George Deukmejian, who calls transportation his top priority for 1989, also has his staff exploring truck-control options.

More than reducing truck traffic itself, the goal is to reduce the risk of accidents like the one that occurred Monday morning on the San Diego Freeway, when a speeding three-axle truck veered into a pillar supporting the La Cienega Boulevard overpass in Inglewood. The truck driver was killed, a motorist severely injured and southbound traffic jammed for hours. (Story in Metro, Page 1.)

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A recent study for the California Department of Transportation found that although big trucks make up less than 5% of traffic, accidents involving them account for about half of “non-recurring” major traffic jams. Virtually every day, some trucker in Southern California has a crash, breakdown or cargo spill that knots a freeway.

The 1984 Olympics is the inspiration, even the battle cry, for Bradley’s truck initiative. During the two weeks of the Summer Games, most firms voluntarily rescheduled and rerouted their trucks, and traffic sailed.

The Los Angeles proposal would, in effect, make rescheduling and rerouting mandatory. But, while the Olympics lasted only two weeks, a permanent change would affect the life styles not only of truckers, but tens of thousands of other workers as well, because shippers and receivers would have to change their work schedules, too. Opponents argue that untold costs would be passed on to consumers.

A recent study for Caltrans concluded that a “night shipping and receiving strategy” in Los Angeles could affect 17,000 establishments. The Southern California Air Quality Management District, with its mandate to reduce air pollution, has endorsed the Los Angeles proposal as a “demonstration program” and is planning to use its broad powers to require many companies to go to night hours or face penalties.

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Plainly, says Karen E. Rasmussen, government affairs director for the California Trucking Assn., “When you talk about changing truckers’ schedules, you’re talking about a heck of a lot more than truckers.”

Bill Bicker, the mayor’s transportation aide, and John Dunlap, the AQMD’s point man on the truck proposal, stress that changes will be methodical rather than abrupt. An arbitration board would be established, they say, that would address individual appeals from affected companies.

Bicker said the reaction from major corporations that operate their own large fleets has been mixed. Some supermarket chains adjust easily because they already operate 24 hours a day, and were pleased to learn the city planned to ease noise ordinances that now prohibit some night deliveries. Chevron and Texaco offered few complaints, but the Atlantic Richfield Co. remains troubled, he said.

Typically, he said, major companies reviewing the proposal discover they can adjust without incurring great costs. Business owners, he says, realize that driving in gridlock costs them money, and that growth and congestion in the Southland will ultimately force extended work hours anyway.

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“There are a lot of companies that could do every delivery over night right now, but won’t until we push them,” Bicker said. “You need to kick the system in the tail a little bit.”

For all the planning, the question that remains is whether peak-hour truck restrictions will really have a substantial effect on traffic flow. After all, freeways would be exempt. So would certain surface roads--the Pacific Coast Highway, Imperial Highway and stretches of a few others--that are protected by federal law.

Bicker predicts a major improvement. More important than rescheduling trucks, he says, is the fact that trucks would have to pass safety inspections that many now avoid. Moreover, the proposal calls for a multiagency accident clean-up effort that would, in theory, clear jams with unprecedented speed.

“The problem is not just cleaning up the accident, it’s cleaning up the truck to begin with,” Bicker says.

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“If we can cut the number in half, and get safe trucks, and get a fast clean-up, you’ll see a hell of an impact” on traffic flow, he said.

Rasmussen predicts a different kind of impact, with the new law making traffic worse. If 25,000 three-axle trucks are banned, she said, the marketplace may simply replace them with 50,000 pickups, vans and other two-axle trucks. Will that help traffic? she asked.

John Van Berkel, Caltrans director of truck studies, has taken the official stance of wait-and-see. “I’m not sure that anybody knows where it’s all going to fall out,” Van Berkel says. “The issues are incredibly complex. . . . It’s like a balloon: You push in one area and it pops out somewhere else.”

The feeling among people like Rasmussen and Rivas is that improved safety checks and faster accident clean-up are admirable goals. There is plenty of faulty equipment out on the road, Rivas says, and it has gotten steadily worse since about 1980, after the trucking industry was deregulated. As wages have fallen, the quality of drivers also has sagged, he says.

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But a peak-hour ban, they argue, simply doesn’t make sense.

“It’s just a politically popular thing to do. People don’t like to have to drive next to a truck,” said Laurie Hunter, vice president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the proposal.

“Truck-bashing” is how Jerry Lundberg, owner of Montebello-based Stirling Transit and a past president of the trucking association, describes the measure. It is good politics but bad policy, he says, calling it an effort to make trucking the scapegoat for gridlock.

The Caltrans study, Lundberg and others they point out, found more trucks on the freeways during the off-peak hours. It also found that most major truck accidents occur before peak hours, as traffic speeds adjust with the gathering congestion. Monday’s accident on the San Diego Freeway occurred just before 5 a.m.; commuters starting the early morning rush at 6 caught the ensuing jam. They ask, does putting more trucks on the road when most truck accidents occur make sense?

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Lundberg is bemused by a recent flurry of small-town “truck-bashing” ordinances. One town recently made it legal for trucks to stop only when making deliveries or pickups. “A guy can’t stop to have lunch!”

Politicians would love to please a truck-hating public, Lundberg says, but fail to recognize the significance and complexities of the industry, and the cost efficiencies that already exist.

Lundberg, Hunter and others contend that truck restrictions may have a substantial economic impact--especially if they do nothing to ease traffic.

The 1988 truck survey for Caltrans estimated that it would cost $1.45 billion for 17,000 establishments to develop night-shipping operations. Smaller companies would be in trouble if the proposal becomes law, Lundberg contends.

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“How can a guy who has four or five people working for him put on a second shift?” he asked. “He works on a pretty thin margin. He just doesn’t have the financial capability.”

There is little question, truckers say, that restrictions will increase the price of Easter egg coloring kits and just about every other piece of merchandise. “If you’ve got it, a truck brought it,” truckers like to remind the consuming public.

Among the items inside Dan Rivas’ truck, in addition to Easter merchandise for a Glendale drugstore, there were a load of bananas for a East Los Angeles food distributor, books for a Pasadena bookstore, two manhole covers for an Alhambra foundry, and licorice for a Glendale candy shop. The licorice--half black, half red--outweighed the manhole covers by 400 pounds. Among his afternoon pickups were coffee makers, truck parts and dry wall molding.

Rivas, for one, doesn’t understand the need for restrictions. The West Covina resident has jockeyed big rigs for 28 of his 45 years without causing an accident. Why should he be banned? When he won a national championship for precision truck-driving, a local paper ran his picture and a story and his kids took it to school for show and tell.

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Lundberg, Rivas and many others believe that truckers have suffered politically along with their image. A generation ago, cross-country truckers were storied for their efforts in aiding stranded motorists. But Teamsters Union controversies helped tarnish the image. Then came deregulation and the erosion of standards. That is why, Lundberg says, the “knights of the road” is now “a bastard industry.”

But Rivas is a throwback, a model of roadway courtesy. Now, he says, those other truckers--"a bunch of cowboys,” he calls them--act like, yes, they do own the road.

FEWER TRUCKS DURING RUSH HOUR

Mayor Tom Bradley’s office is pushing a controversial law intended to reduce by half the number of big rigs on Los Angeles streets during peak traffic hours, primarily by shifting more shipping operations into the night.

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Under the proposed law:

Medallions of three different colors would be issued for about 60% of the trucks that operate in the Los Angeles area. The color of the medallion would show which shift the truck would be allowed to operate.

Some of the trucks would be granted the right to run on surface streets during the morning commuting hours of 6 to 9 a.m., some to work the evening peak of 4 to 7 p.m., and some to work both periods.

To get a medallion, trucks would have to pass state safety inspections--a legal requirement that many independent truckers now manage to avoid.

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The program would be limited to trucks with three axles or more and a gross weight of more than 26,000 pounds.

Violators would face still undetermined fines.

Establishments that ship or receive merchandise more than five times per week would be required to keep docks open to handle night shipments or face penalties. The expected requirement is for those establishments to be open for any five hours between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

The freeways, Pacific Coast Highway, Imperial Highway and a few other streets that fall under federal jurisdiction would be affected only indirectly. But the program would include a joint-agency freeway accident cleanup squad that would, in theory, clear traffic jams quickly.

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