Port Truckers Like the Idea, but ...

Times Staff Writer

California truckers support Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to borrow billions of dollars to build new highways and curb pollution in the coming decade.

But they don't want to pay for it -- especially if it would mean paying tolls to finance construction of special truck-only lanes on the congested Interstate 710, the Long Beach Freeway.

Schwarzenegger floated the toll lanes idea, along with charging fees on goods moving through ports, as a way to raise money for freeway construction and expansion, as well as for pollution control and other improvements at California ports. Dubbed "public-private partnerships," the proposals were included in a $222-billion Strategic Growth Plan the governor released this month.

Independent truck drivers and their lobbyists at the statehouse immediately raised alarms. Independent truckers, mostly immigrants who daily haul thousands of shipping containers between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and inland distribution centers, contend they can ill afford to pay the tolls and stay in business.

"We're the poorest people around and the first targets for all kinds of taxes," said Mel Mouradian, who has hauled containers along the 710 for the last 12 years. "We are not making that much money to pay tolls."

Port drivers want to see improvements made to the crowded, potholed 710. But the truckers, who are paid less than $100 a trip, already are strapped because they have to pay for their own fuel, said Michael D. Campbell, chief executive of the California Trucking Assn., which represents Mouradian and many other independent drivers.

Barry Broad, a Sacramento advocate for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, said the toll proposal ignored "the plight of drivers," whom he described as "the impoverished sharecroppers" of the ports.

Truckers, who already pay about $30,000 a year per vehicle in federal and state taxes and fees, contend that the cost of building new vehicle lanes and other facilities to ease port congestion and reduce pollution should be borne by those involved in the exporting and importing of goods, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc.

Commuters and residents of the harbor area, meanwhile, worry about the increasing number of accidents on the 710 -- now running at more than 2,000 a year -- and health threats from breathing diesel exhaust fumes, which have been linked to cancer and heart disease. Port-related truck traffic is expected to jump to 80,000 trips a day in 2026 from 25,000 trips this year, port officials said.

A bill that would levy a $30 fee on every shipping container moving through the L.A. and Long Beach ports is pending in the Assembly. The measure, which would fund road building, air quality improvements and port security, should be rolled into the governor's plan, said its author, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach).

"The reality is we have to look for some way to fund" improvements at the ports, said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "There's a cost for moving all the goods through the ports and putting strain on the infrastructure."

The Democratic leaders who control both houses of the Legislature are willing to consider truck toll lanes and container fees as part of Schwarzenegger's building plan. But Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said he preferred "container fees over tolls for trucking companies because I think they are more fair."

Opponents, counter that the fees would be an unconstitutional obstruction to interstate and international commerce, and would discriminate against some businesses by saddling them with special taxes.

"There are a whole bunch of reasons why there are environmental problems in and around the ports," said Dorothy Rothrock of the California Manufacturers & Technology Assn. "But assessing a fee on containers pulls out just one element of a much bigger problem."

Home Depot, which opposes the Lowenthal bill, declined to comment on the container-fee issue.

For now, the Schwarzenegger administration is touting both tolls and container fees as potential new funding sources for transportation improvements.

The governor announced last week support for a bill that would authorize public-private partnerships to finance construction of extra toll lanes on the 710 and other freeways. It's also looking at "a number of options" that could lead to container fees in the ports, said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation.

Of the two choices, container fees "may have greater legs," said Steven P. Erie, a UC San Diego expert on transportation and public works projects. "Somebody needs to pay" to reduce congestion. Why not the retailers, who pass it on to consumers, the ultimate beneficiaries?" he asked.

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