The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the Bush administration can open U.S. roadways to Mexican trucks without first doing an environmental study.
The ruling overturns a U.S. appeals court decision requiring the Department of Transportation to review the impact of Mexican trucks on air quality, and it means the roads can be opened to them as soon as the administration wants.
Labor and environmental groups had opposed granting Mexican trucks free access across the border, saying they do not meet U.S. safety and environmental standards.
The Bush administration has said it would open the border to Mexican trucks as soon as all legal obstacles are cleared to comply with the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said he welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.
"Opening the market between Mexico and the United States for trucks and buses means more opportunities for American companies, more jobs for American drivers and better deals for American consumers," Mr. Mineta said.
The next step is for the United States and Mexico to arrange "a comprehensive inspection and audit program," said Brian Turmail, Transportation Department spokesman.
Afterward, trucks would be allowed to cross the border freely.
"They're going to have to operate almost like a domestic trucking operation in the sense that they'll have to meet all of our environmental and safety guidelines," Mr. Turmail said.
Among the guidelines Mexican truckers must follow are U.S. insurance laws.
"They have to be insured by a U.S.-admitted insurer," said Karen Rasmussen, president of the Arizona Trucking Association.
Currently, licensed Mexican trucks are allowed to cross about 20 miles into the United States in border states. U.S. trucks are not granted access into Mexico.
The dispute has festered since 1995, when former President Clinton refused to lift a 1982 moratorium barring Mexican trucks from the United States.
NAFTA required that the United States open the border to Mexican trucks for travel in border states by 1995 and the rest of the country by January 2000.
Mr. Clinton cited safety concerns for his refusal to comply with the deadlines, saying Mexican trucks did not meet U.S. standards. He appeared to be giving in to pressure from the Teamsters' union and environmental groups.
Mexican truckers have been wary of any decision to let them into the United States, saying they can't afford to upgrade their rigs to U.S. standards.
President Bush changed the Clinton administration policy, saying open borders would provide economic benefits. The Department of Transportation issued new rules in November 2002 that would allow Mexican truckers to operate in the United States.
The move was stopped by the lawsuit from the labor and environmental groups, who argued that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) failed to review the environmental impact of Mexican trucks, which is required by its own regulations for commercial trucks.
However, the Supreme Court said the president's authority includes the discretion to override federal regulations in order to comply with the trade pact.
"Because the president, not the FMCSA, could authorize or not authorize cross-border operations from Mexican motor carriers, and because FMCSA has no discretion to prevent the entry of Mexican trucks, its [environmental assessment] did not need to consider the environmental effects arising from the entry," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.
Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa said yesterday the ruling was dangerous.
"By allowing the Bush administration to move forward with its plan to open the border, this decision represents a setback for all who advocate for safe roads, clean air and a secure America."