Clean truck programs can work to everyone’s benefit, says program leader

 Clean Truck Programs that remove older trucks from port operation benefit not only the environment, but also productivity, says the program manager of one such initiative. ( Photo: Shutterstock )

Clean Truck Programs that remove older trucks from port operation benefit not only the environment, but also productivity, says the program manager of one such initiative. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The news on Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency plans to roll back fuel efficiency targets for light trucks and cars is the latest attempt by the current administration to take a step back from what it considers the Obama administration’s aggressive and unwarranted approach to reducing pollution. In August 2017, EPA said it was reviewing the Phase 2 Greenhouse Gas standards for heavy trucks – the trucking industry’s equivalent to the cars and light trucks version.

Fuel efficiency targets are nothing new for the transportation industry, dating back to the early 2000s with the first iteration of EPA regulations on engines. Several new layers have since been added, including Phase 1 GHG rules in 2014. The result is a U.S. trucking population that has never been as environmentally friendly as it is today.

Ports, though, have been an entirely different scenario. Supported by thousands of truckers and small fleet operations moving containers, the drayage industry is also among the biggest polluters in terms of vehicle emissions. The nature of the segment with its long idle times and older vehicles are just part of the history of port trucking.

In the past 10 years, ports across the country have implemented Clean Truck Programs to try and remove those older, less efficient and higher polluting trucks from operations. While somewhat successful, the programs have come with their share of critics. Reports of trucking companies forcing owner-operators into onerous lease agreements to acquire newer trucks and meet port emissions requirements populated the news cycle in 2017. Despite this, though, Clean Truck Programs have persisted, and some have been finding success and willing partners taking advantage of the grants to acquire newer trucks that emit fewer emissions and provide more uptime.

In Texas, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) has been running a Clean Truck Program for about nine years at the region’s nine ports that fall under an EPA nonattainment zone in the state.  Nonattainment zones were created by EPA for areas that do not meet ground-level ozone standards. Organizations in those zones can access federal funding through grants to create programs that help reduce ozone levels. HGAC has done exactly that with its Clean Trucks Program.

HGAC offers two Clean Truck Programs, one is a grant-only program for anyone operating a commercial vehicle within the nonattainment zone while the other is a drayage program that includes both a grant and loan opportunity.

“If they have a really old truck, the financial incentive [is significant],” Robert Veazie, program manager for HGAC, tells FreightWaves. “They would qualify for [up to] 75% of the cost. If the average new truck is between $130,000 and $140,000, they might have only a $30,000 or $40,000 overall cost for a new truck.”

In addition, owner-operators can qualify for a low-cost loan from HGAC to cover their portion of the truck, he adds. Those seeking loans would be subjected to a typical loan process, including credit worthiness checks.

“Our goal is not to repossess a truck; our goal is to keep trucks on the road and reduce emissions,” Veazie notes. Fleets also utilize the program and some then lease those trucks to owner-operators, Veazie says, although he hasn’t heard of any problems with those programs in Texas.

To date, the programs have replaced about 200 drayage trucks and 3,200 over-the-road trucks.

While many people consider port trucking replacement programs to be specific to ports, they have a ripple effect on over-the-road drivers and the economy as a whole.

As the economy picks up, the demand for port trucking capacity increases and those owner-operators running older trucks that break down more frequently are not in a position to take advantage, Veazie says. That can lead to more containers/freight sitting in the ports and not getting transferred to OTR trucks for final delivery. A new truck, especially one that might only cost $30,000 – less than a good used vehicle these days – can ensure the trucker is in the best place to benefit financially from the increase.

Owner-operators and fleets tend to approach HGAC Clean Truck Programs from different angles, but the result for the area is the same – a newer vehicle emitting fewer emissions.  “On the owner-operator side, it’s more income-driven, rather than legislation-driven,” Veazie says. “But on the fleet side, it’s more on the efficiency and the ability for them to tell their customers the freight is moving on a clean vehicle or on natural gas.”

However, with the EPA’s decision on Monday to cut back the light vehicle fuel efficiency rules and its stated plan to review the heavy-truck rules, there is some uncertainty with federal funding going forward for these types of programs. Veazie says HGAC is funded through 2020 with between $12 million and $13 million in available funding during that timeframe.

The funding can also be used for alternative fuel components, he adds, such as nozzles and tanks for natural gas stations. It doesn’t cover construction costs. Natural gas vehicles remain a popular choice for fleets, he says, but are rarely considered by owner-operators, likely due to the lack of on-road infrastructure for natural gas refueling. 

Clean Truck Programs have proven successful in removing older, dirtier trucks, from ports, but they have not come without some controversy. The Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Clean Truck Program has found some success, and largely avoided the issues that have arisen at the California ports. The result is newer vehicles moving goods out of the ports, cleaner air, and owner-operators who are driving miles rather than sitting at home while their truck is repaired.