- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta this summer is expected to recommend that President Bush lift a 20-year-old ban on allowing Mexican trucks to travel U.S. highways now that new safety measures are in place, according to a new federal report.
The Department of Transportation has made "substantial progress" toward beefing up safety inspections along the vast U.S.-Mexican border, the report by the agency's inspector general states. The result will be a "robust enforcement regime for Mexican carriers that will operate in the United States."
"While the department still has some work to do, [Mr. Mineta] fully expects to be in a position this summer to certify to the President that the border can be opened," according to the Jan. 25 report.
Mr. Mineta will testify about plans to open the border to Mexican trucks today to the Senate committees on transportation and appropriations.
Even when the border officially opens, neither federal officials nor the trucking industry expects a flood of Mexican vehicles in the United States. Only 20 companies have applied for permission so far.
Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader-founded group that has lobbied against permitting Mexican big rigs access to U.S. highways, as required under the North American Free Trade Agreement, still plans to fight against any border opening. It believes the Transportation Department must do more to ensure that Mexican trucks are safe, such as build permanent inspection stations.
"There are a lot of issues out there that have not been addressed," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
The Bush administration planned to open the border last year, but was immediately reined in by a skeptical Congress, which worried that Mexican vehicles might not be up to American safety standards. Lawmakers ultimately approved legislation that withheld funds from transportation agencies until the federal government added personnel and facilities at the border to inspect rigs.
The inspector general report concludes that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is responsible for enforcing safety regulations at the border, has nearly met the legal requirements imposed by Congress regarding personnel. By July 31, 198 of the 214 new inspectors will be in place and trained, and the others will follow soon afterward, the report states.
The report also says that the agency has acquired workspace at border crossings to conduct inspections and set aside trucks that fail safety audits.
The inspector general faulted two border states New Mexico and Texas for failing to give their own state transportation officials the authority to take action against a Mexican vehicle that does not have the required safety permits.
Roughly 4.3 million commercial vehicles entered the United States last year from Mexico at 25 border crossings in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, up from 2.4 million in 1993, the year before Congress approved NAFTA.
Currently, all but a fraction of these trucks are limited to a narrow strip along the border where they typically hand off freight to American truckers who then haul it to a final destination.


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