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Access for Mexican trucks hits rough road

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A Bush administration plan to proceed with a pilot program to give Mexican truckers full access of U.S. roads has caused a bipartisan uproar on Capitol Hill.

"The cross-border trucking program is bad for America," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and presidential candidate. "It appears, under the current program, that commercial interests are being pushed ahead of the safety and security interests of the American people."

The Teamsters union and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade association representing the independent truck owner-operators and professional drivers, also oppose the program, saying Mexican trucking companies have poor safety figures, do not keep reliable records on accidents, and do not dependably test drivers for drugs and alcohol.

"It's apparent the Bush administration is thumbing its nose at the will of the American people and Congress," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Mexican-registered trucks are allowed to make deliveries and pickups in the U.S. only within special commercial zones along the U.S.-Mexican border that extend up to about 70 miles inside U.S. territory. But several months ago, President Bush announced plans for a Department of Transportation test program to begin this summer that would permit 100 Mexican-based trucking companies to travel anywhere in the U.S.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill complained the program would pose serious safety concerns, and the House last month voted 411-3 to place a series of restrictions on Mexican trucks and their drivers, designed to delay the administration's program indefinitely.

The Safe American Road Act was sponsored by Rep. Nancy Boyda, Kansas Democrat. Ten of the 52 co-sponsors were Republicans.

"We're going to have a major accident somewhere, and people are going to say, 'How did this happen?' " said Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat, on the House floor just before the May 14 vote.

The Senate has not taken up its version of the House's bill.

The Transportation Department, however, says that Mexican trucking companies are only required to meet safety criteria included in the Iraq war supplemental-spending bill signed into law by Mr. Bush on May 25, and is proceeding with its plan to allow Mexican trucks into the country.

"We're dealing with the bill that was already signed into law," said Melissa Mazzella DeLaney, a spokeswoman with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is part of the Transportation Department. "We're certainly very committed to this program. It's one of the top priorities in the department right now."

The Transportation Department said it won't give Mexican truckers access to U.S. roads until its inspector general completes an audit of the program. The department also must wait until the conclusion of a public comment period that ends on Thursday.

The agency hopes to start the program no later than the end of the year, Ms. DeLaney said.

The new pilot program was designed to simplify a process that currently requires Mexican truckers to stop and wait for U.S. trucks to arrive and transfer cargo. The process wastes money, drives up the cost of goods, and leaves trucks loaded with cargo idling inside U.S. borders, the department says.

The new program also allows for an equal number of U.S. trucking companies to make deliveries and pickups in Mexico. Participating Mexican companies must be insured with a U.S.-licensed firm and meet all U.S. safety standards.

Companies that meet the standards will be allowed to make international pickups and deliveries. They will not be allowed to move goods from one part of the U.S. to another, haul hazardous materials or transport passengers.

Drivers must meet a list of safety criteria before being allowed into the U.S., such as having a valid commercial driver's license, proof they are medically fit, a willingness to comply with U.S. hours-of-service rules, and an understanding of questions and directions in English.

But many on Capitol Hill say those requirements are not enough, and have chastised the Transportation Department for proceeding with the program despite public and congressional opposition.

"DOT's simple assertion, that Mexican truckers scheduled to enter the United States had already been in compliance with the newly enacted guidelines, cannot be accepted at face value," Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Spencer said the Transportation Department is ignoring a well-thought-out piece of legislation, in the Safe American Road Act. It "would have injected some sanity into a program that still has too many safety and security issues that have yet to be resolved," he said.

Mexican trucks were allowed free rein on U.S. roads before 1982, when the U.S. began confining them to commercial zones around major border towns. Access to all U.S. highways was promised by 2000 under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, as was access through Mexico for U.S. carriers.

That aspect of NAFTA was stalled by President Clinton, who said Mexican trucks didn't meet U.S. safety and environmental standards. Because of this U.S. refusal, the Mexican government barred U.S. trucks into that country.

Canadian and U.S. trucks travel freely across the northern border.

But in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously the Bush administration could open U.S. roadways to Mexican trucks without first doing an environmental study.