New Jersey’s Ambitious Plan to Clean Up the Port Authority’s Mess

With Bridgegate and the now-fatal underfunding of New Jersey Transit dominating the headlines, it’s easy to forget about other botched infrastructure projects in the Garden State. Take the Port Authority’s incredibly mismanaged and ill-designed trucks replacement program, for example: Launched in 2009, it offered drivers grants to help pay for new, cleaner vehicles — up to $25,000 each. Most drivers make less than $30,000 a year; for many, especially those driving rigs with the older, dirtier-burning engines that the program meant to phase out, it was too good a deal to pass up. But the grant program was at best cosmetic. A new truck costs as much as $100,000; many drivers went into serious debt to cover the upfront capital, some ending up as much as $75,000 in the hole. To minimize the debt burden, the only alternative for many was to purchase trucks that were already years old, with unfamiliar emissions systems needing specialists to fix. Sometimes these replacements died on the side of the Jersey Turnpike.

Saddling truckers with lemons is just one consequence of the mismanaged — and, as those managers have claimed, underfunded — replacement program. Though the Port Authority has so far spent $2 million of its remaining federal funds to replace just sixty of the oldest trucks, it hasn’t shown any interest in reinstituting its original ban on the majority of polluting vehicles, many of which are now almost two decades old. Instead, it’s focused on asking the city of Newark to enforce idling laws and emphasized the use of freight rail (even though 85 percent of cargo still leaves the port by truck). In the meantime, toxic diesel exhaust is still flowing into the ports-adjacent Ironbound neighborhood of Newark as schoolchildren continue to trudge through a bowl of smog just to get to class.

The stunning inaction on the part of the ports has now forced drastic action: A new bill in the New Jersey legislature that cuts the Port Authority out altogether.

On September 12, State Senator Raymond Lesniak, the longtime northern New Jersey politician and Democratic power broker, officially proposed a law that would create a new replacement program, one funded by fees on trucking carriers and shipping companies that the Port Authority and its business-friendly leadership has long resisted. The new legislation is ambitious: It would get every truck older than eight years out of the port by 2020.

Lesniak’s tack is surprising. For one, the program would be administered through the state’s own Department of Environmental Protection instead of the Port Authority, which answers to two separate state governments with two terminally opportunistic governors.

The bill’s other innovation is a shrewd piece of politicking: Instead of introducing the bill in the Transportation Committee, Lesniak brought it to the assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee, and the senate’s Environment and Energy Committee. The move not only frames port pollution as a public health issue; the legislation actually has a shot at making it through those panels, which are both smaller and less business-friendly than their transportation-focused counterparts. (Lesniak’s last attempt at a similar bill died before it reached the floor. That version still assigned the program to the Port Authority, not the DEP.)

“I don’t think Lesniak has any notion that this will be a cakewalk,” said Amy Goldsmith, state director at Clean Water Action, an organization that has been pushing for years for a better truck replacement program. “He’s doing his homework in building power and support behind him, and knows that people will challenge him and take him to court.”

“I expect to see a tremendous amount of opposition to this bill,” Lesniak told the Voice in an interview the day after he proposed it. “Not only from the trucking associations, but from the big-box stores like Walmart and mail carriers like UPS and FedEx.” Already, the trucking lobby has tutted in disapproval of the proposed law. Jeffrey Bader, the head of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, believes that “legislation that targets the hardworking men and women of the intermodal trucking community is not the answer.

“Charging a tariff on the containers that go through the Port of New York and New Jersey would also make it less attractive to do business here, jeopardizing the billions of dollars in federal and state revenue contributed by the port industry in this region each year,” Bader said in a statement to the Voice. “We cannot support such a tariff, which would have a negative impact on jobs and the economy in New Jersey.” But the claim that the new law would be bad for business runs contrary to examples set by replacement programs across the country. Lesniak’s bill is modeled after an immensely successful system in place at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. There, a mix of fees and federal funding helped completely flip the truck fleet to low-emission vehicles in just two years, without dinging the ports’ still healthy revenues.

Molly Campbell was the port director who oversaw the L.A. program. She left the West Coast to become the Port Authority’s ports director last year, as its truck replacement program was falling apart. In meetings with community groups, Campbell has stressed her commitment to reducing emissions but claimed the Port Authority had tied her hands by refusing to charge tariffs on shipping companies or fully funding a robust replacement program.

In a statement to the Voice, the Port Authority confirmed that if Lesniak’s legislation were to pass, it would follow it to the letter. “We do not comment on pending legislation,” said Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman. “We will follow the law if it’s passed.”

The bill could still be defeated, or Governor Chris Christie could veto it — perhaps comfortable in the knowledge that the state legislature has never overridden him. But Lesniak makes no secret of his plans to run for governor in 2017, and if it comes to it, he says, he’s willing to make emissions reductions a priority of his campaign: “I certainly hope that this program will already be up and running before I become the next governor of the great state of New Jersey.”

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