California bill would tax containers, shift traffic from truck to rail

| 4/14/2005

A hearing is scheduled Monday, April 18, on a bill that would tax every shipping container passing through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and spend the money, in part, on rail facilities designed to replace port truckers.

The hearing will take place before the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee. Portions of the bill, SB760, require some of the funds to be spent on measures to improve air quality issues at the ports.

The bill, which has already passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee on a 9-3 vote, was proposed by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, the chairman of the Committee on Environmental Quality. He has introduced a flurry of bills dealing with port issues during this legislative session in California.

Under SB760, the state would collect a $30 tax on every 20-foot container, and $60 on every 40-foot container. The money would be divided up among several uses.

One-third of the money would be give to the ports themselves. That portion would be spent on security improvements at the massive facilities, said to be the largest ports in the United States.

The ports would be required to work with a bevy of security agencies – including the Coast Guard, the Homeland Security Department and various state agencies – to select which security improvements would be funded. However, the bill requires that part of the money be spent on screening shipping containers. Federal officials have said that only a fraction of containers moving into the country are now screened.

One-third of the money would go to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which would use the money to cut back emissions from ships, trucks and rail facilities that the district determines are contributing to air pollution near the facility.

All of the money spent by the air quality district under the bill would have to be used at the two ports. The bill specifies that a portion of the money could be spent on “replacing highly-polluting engines with cleaner engines and retiring the engines that have been replaced.”

The rest of the money would go to the California Transportation Commission to “alleviate congestion on the highways serving the ports.” However, the bill says none of it can be actually spent on the highways; all of the money given to the commission under the bill would be required to be spent on improving the rail systems that serve the port to replace trucks that move containers over land.

In fact, the text of the bill says it would specifically “prohibit commission from using the funds to construct, maintain, or improve highways.”

According to the Senate Web site, the Committee on Environmental Quality meets at 1:30 p.m. PDT Monday, April 18, in Room 112 of the California Statehouse. SB760 is the ninth bill the committee will discuss at the meeting.