With more than a million miles on the road, Armand Patella's 19-year-old Ford 9000 truck has seen better days.

But he's hung onto it, because new trucks aren't cheap. Patella, the head of Picorp trucking service on East Lombard Street, still uses the 1992 vehicle to move empty or lightly loaded containers around the port of Baltimore. 

"It's had a new engine or two," Patella said last week, "but it's paid for."

Now, though, a program aimed at making the community's air healthier to breathe is encouraging Patella and other short-haul truck operators serving the port to trade in their soot-belching clunkers for newer, cleaner vehicles.

Starting with more than $3 million in federal funds, the University of Maryland and air quality officials in four states are teaming up to offer subsidies and financial incentives to replace older short-haul trucks serving four Mid-Atlantic ports — the others being Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del., and Hampton Roads, Va.

Organizers hope to nearly double that amount with other public and private funding so they can replace hundreds of the most polluting delivery trucks over the next two years.

"We no longer want our ports to be the place where old trucks go to die," Joanne Throwe, director of the University of Maryland environmental finance center, said in a statement. "It's not just the air around the port that suffers — it's the routes the trucks follow throughout the region."

Under the program, owners of short-haul or "dray" trucks built before 2003 are eligible for grants of up to $15,000 toward a newer vehicle — though preference for now is being given to those vehicles with engines made before 1998.

The older trucks must be scrapped, but the value of the scrap metal can also be applied to the purchase. The program, run in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Air Management Association, a group of state air pollution regulators, also is helping to arrange favorable financing for the truckers.

The effort comes in the wake of sweeping truck replacement initiatives at some of the nation's largest ports, on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Older, polluting trucks have been banished from shipping terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., New York and New Jersey, where authorities have offered substantial financial aid for owners of old trucks to buy newer ones.

There's no age limit now on vehicles at the port of Baltimore, where about 3,000 trucks roll in and out daily — nor is such a restriction imminent, according to Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. But he said officials are interested in doing what they can, within budget constraints, to reduce the port's contribution to the area's air quality problems.

Though air quality here has generally improved over the past two decades, ozone and fine-particle pollution still reach unhealthful levels at times. The American Lung Association gave Baltimore and Baltimore County, where the port's terminals are, mostly failing grades in its latest annual "state of the air" report card.

Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said state regulators have never assessed the health risks posed by the port's pollution. When all the emissions from ships, trucks and equipment operating at the various terminal facilities are combined, though, he said they're roughly on par with that coming from the smokestack of a power plant.

Air-quality studies done several years ago around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach found elevated asthma rates and increased cancer risks in communities surrounding those bustling facilities.

Ozone and particle pollution, two byproducts of diesel exhaust, can cause shortness of breath and other breathing problems, and inhaling fine particles also has been linked to heart problems, diabetes and premature death.

"All ports around the country have the same issues," said Morgan Wyenn, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in California. The levels of pollution and health risks are a function of the port's size and proximity to people, she said, but those byproducts of the growth in global trade often get overlooked.

In Southern California, environmental group lawsuits and political pressure prompted officials three years ago to ban pre-1989 trucks. The prohibition was extended last year to pre-1994 models, and trucks made between 1994 and 2003 had to be retrofitted with pollution controls.

By next year, all trucks that don't meet 2007 federal clean-truck standards will be barred. The California initiative, which is being appealed in court by the American Trucking Association, already has reduced diesel emissions by about 70 percent.

The ports of New York and New Jersey banned pre-1994 trucks at the beginning of this year, and have declared their intention to exclude trucks built before 2007 less than six years from now.

In both cases, the bans were paired with subsidies and financing plans to help owners of old trucks replace them. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has pledged $21 million and the EPA $7 million, according to Rich Kassel, an NRDC attorney in New York who co-chaired the clean-truck effort in that area.

The financial aid is especially important, he noted, because much if not most port hauling is handled by independent owner-operators, who lease out their vehicles to trucking companies. Those independents tend to lack the cash or credit needed to buy a new truck costing $100,000 or more, which is why they tend to hang onto aging vehicles, even if they burn more fuel and break down more often.

"Nobody drives a 20-year-old truck because they like the way it vibrates and smells," Kassel said. "They drive it because they can't afford a cleaner truck, a newer truck."

Compared to the California and New York initiative, the Mid-Atlantic truck replacement program is totally voluntary — and funded less robustly, so far.

The $3.3 million the EPA provided for all four ports would replace about 220 trucks. There are 4,000 dray vehicles registered to operate at the port of Baltimore alone.

Officials say they don't know how many of Baltimore's trucks were built before 1998. A survey of New York area ports found more than a quarter of their trucks were of that vintage.

Under an earlier clean-diesel federal grant, Baltimore port businesses did replace and retrofit the engines on 80 pieces of equipment, according to Scher, the port spokesman. But funds for that effort have run out.

Throwe, the University of Maryland coordinator for the program, said she hopes to cobble together an additional $3 million from government and private sources in the four states so more trucks can be replaced.

"Our commitments at this time are strong in the other three states and probably slowest to move forward here in Maryland," she said in an email.

The state Department of the Environment has pledged $100,000 and a trucking company put up another $15,000. Throwe said Ports America, the private firm hired by the state to manage Seagirt Marine Terminal, has expressed interest, but has made no specific pledge. Nor has the Maryland Port Administration.

"We want to get there, but we're not there yet," said James J. White, executive director of the port administration.

"Funding is tight in the state of Maryland," ports spokesman Scher elaborated. Even though officials believe the program "has merit," he added, they're grappling with what the agency can afford to spend.

Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said he and other industry executives are working to round up the funds to match the new EPA grant.

"I'm optimistic that the port is going to be a donor," he said, "but we don't know for sure."

Even if funding is soft, demand for the new program appears to be strong. Throwe said there are already nearly 80 applicants from the Baltimore area.

Armand Patella is one of them, looking to retire his 1992 Ford. A newer truck would be more reliable, and while maintenance of its more sophisticated systems might cost more, it would burn a lot less fuel.

Still, he said, even a newer used truck could run $60,000 to $90,000.

"It's important we get these trucks off the road," he said of clunkers like his. "But it's also important to recognize the economic realities, particularly in these times."

While truckers such as Patella are eager to take advantage of the replacement program, others are holding back, waiting to see how much money will be available — and what regulation, if any, may come with it.

Chris Lessner, president of Atlantic Nationwide Trucking, said his firm on North Point Boulevard in Sparrows Point runs about 60 trucks, both company-owned and leased independently, to and from the marine terminals. No truck he owns is older than 1999, so the company is not immediately targeted by the initiative.

"I'm sitting on the fence, and I'm watching," Lessner said. "I think it's still a little clouded as to what they're really willing to do."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.