- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

The Department of Transportation lacks an effective plan and the facilities to ensure that Mexican trucks operating in the United States comply with American safety and environmental standards, the General Accounting Office reported yesterday.
"The United States [government] and most U.S. border states are not prepared to ensure that Mexican commercial carriers meet U.S. safety standards," the GAO wrote in a study released yesterday.
The department, in comments on the draft GAO report, emphasized that it is "well advanced" in its efforts to beef up border-safety inspections. A spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration declined to comment on the study.
The GAO also concluded that relatively few Mexican trucking companies are ready to kick off cross-border operations because they have not yet drummed up enough business in the United States.
Auditors found extensive shortcomings in the department's preparations for the border opening, and noted that it criticized the Department of Transportation for the same failures in two earlier reports.
Federal regulators have not obtained permanent space for inspections of Mexican big rigs, which is crucial for conducting regular, rigorous inspections, the GAO said. Instead, federal officials are using space provided by the U.S. Customs Service.
Only California has built its own facilities for inspections, a responsibility it shares with the federal government. California is also the only state that has built stations for testing compliance with U.S. emissions standards.
To comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Transportation Department announced plans in February to open the border to Mexican trucks by Jan. 1, 2002, without first demanding a safety inspection. The decision touched off a firestorm of criticism in Congress that prevented the administration from meeting this date.
NAFTA originally called for the border opening by Jan. 1, 2000, but the Clinton administration ignored the deadline under pressure from organized labor and auto-safety groups. Negotiators hoped cross-border trucking would ease the flow of trade, which hit $248 billion, more than double the $100 billion when NAFTA was signed in 1994.
Both the House and the Senate eventually passed legislation barring the immediate opening, drawing a veto threat from the White House. Congressional and administration negotiators eventually struck a deal under which the department will have to scrutinize at least half the Mexican trucks entering the United States.
This plan became law in December. Mexican trucks will be able to travel the lower 48 states by the second quarter of this year, according to a department official.
Opponents of the immediate border opening cheered the GAO report as evidence that the tougher legislation was justified.
"If trucks from Mexico are going to be permitted to travel [into the United States], they must be held to the same safety standards as U.S. and Canadian trucks," said Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
NAFTA supporters said the GAO study only confirmed that the department has work to do before opening the border, and stressed that the move would not compromise safety.
"It is only January 8," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican. "I am confident that the Department of Transportation and President Bush will implement the law so that Mexican truckers will finally be treated like Canadian truckers."

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