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For Port Truck Drivers, Going Green Has Been A Rough Ride

Sarah Golden |
November 5, 2011 | 3:06 p.m. PDT


The Clean Trucks Program, part of the Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP), has helped reduce diesel truck emissions at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach by 80 percent.  But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the truckers. 

Joel Zuniga has been trucking at the Port of Long Beach for eight years, driving a rig he owned and operated. Two years ago, he sold his early 90s diesel truck and got behind of the wheel of a brand-new, company-owned liquid natural gas (LNG) vehicle.  

The government provided grants to help owner-operators make the transition to LNGs. The ports were going to clean up the environment. The Clean Trucks Program gave drivers a grace period to update their vehicles. Truck drivers would save money in fuel. On paper, it’s a win-win situation.

“I don’t like it,” said Joel Zuniga, a one of the truckers who drives a company rig. Now he says he gets paid half as much as when he owned his own rig. “I used to have a career. Now I have a job.” 

Owner-operators, who traditionally made up about 90 percent of the 16,000 plus drivers who enter the ports, had to find a way to get into the now-preferred green trucks.  For many, this means moving to company work.  Around 71 percent of LNG trucks at the Port of Los Angeles are company owned (499 of the 858).  Critics say that this is pushing independent drivers into unions.

About 40 percent of the nation’s imports come through one of the ports, and drivers are there to connect cargo to their owners. Every day, truckers line up and wait for shipping containers, filled with everything from jeans to drywall, and haul them to the acres of warehouses in the Inland Empire. They wait for the cargo to be unloaded at warehouses, drive the empty container back to the port, and repeat. Today, LNG trucks make up around 11 percent of the vehicles that enter the port – 858 of around 7,500 individual trucks.

Marcelo Nunez also shifted to a company rig.  He sold his old truck two years ago for below-market value and brings home half of his old paycheck – from $1500 a week to $750.  But working by the hour, he says, pays the same in the end because he no longer shoulders insurance, maintenance and other costs.  “I get paid the same but worry less,” he said. 

Nunez has friends who, like him, chose to move to company jobs. It isn’t hard, he says.  Truck companies often hire.

“Trucking companies have reluctantly accepted this arrangement,” said Richard Martinez, dispatch manager at the transport company TTSI. “For 30 years, at least, these were not asset-based companies. They didn’t own trucks. They didn’t own equipment.” 

And those companies still don’t want to own the trucks, said Martinez. The solution for some companies, including TTSI, was to apply for grants and leasing-to-own to owner-operators. Truck companies suddenly became a middleman for government grants.  The pressure for a company to get a green fleet created a race to grab grant money.  

Tim DeMoss works at the Environmental Management Division at the Port of Los Angeles. Big trucking companies, he says, make up the majority of LNG vehicles, pushing out smaller companies and owner-operators.  

“Because these trucks are so new and expensive to get fixed, it’s very hard for these owner-operators to own their vehicles out right. And the numbers show,” he said.  

Before the Clean Trucks Program, 16,000 trucks were registered at the port.  Today, there are 7,500.  According to Robert Lively from California Cartage Company, half of the owner-operators left the market. 

Martin Torres got an LNG truck with a partner. The two take a morning and night shift and split the expenses. Before his LNG, Torres brought in about $1,250 a week. He makes about the same today – but pays $450 a week to lease the truck. 

Torres, like many LNG drivers, thinks the new trucks are uncomfortable and lack power compared to diesel rigs. But more than that, he doesn’t trust the technology. “My new truck has around 100,000 miles. My old truck had almost a million miles and it never gave me so much problem like this truck is giving me,” he said.

Many owner-operators who don’t drive in a fleet share this sentiment, but there are few statistics on the new technology.  Green trucks demand a different maintenance habits than old, dirty rigs, and owner-operators often don’t get education for their new vehicles.  Drivers are largely ignorant to what’s under their hoods – as are the mom and pop garages that were able to do cheap fixes on their old diesel rigs. 

“You can’t get cheap, band aid fixes with this technology. You can’t pay $100 dollars and get back on the road and make money again,’” said Mills. The shift to companies, says Mills, ensures the trucks are getting proper maintenance.  

Mills says that a lack of education about the new vehicles could hurt the truckers’ bottom line. 

“They’ll be saving money hand over fist by purchasing natural gas as a transportation tool,” he said. “But they have to realize they have to pocket some of that savings in order to maintain and repair the vehicle correctly where and if it has a failure.”

LNG drivers are saving money in gas. Liquid natural gas costs almost half as much as regular diesel at $2 per gallon and with gas mileage better on LNG trucks, owner-operators are saving anywhere between $150 to $400 a week. But with the added expense of the lease, many drivers aren’t seeing this money yet. 

Though the demand for new LNG vehicles has tapered with the grant money, the injection of green trucks has paved the road for more natural gas development outside of California.  In July, Chesapeake Energy announced the funding of 150 more LNG fueling stations. This means LNG trucks will be able to travel certain corridors around the country. 

“California may have been the starting point, but it’s nowhere near where we’re focusing our efforts,” said Mills. “The infrastructure is coming which means the growth is coming.”

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