- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

The Supreme Court yesterday said it would decide whether the Bush administration can open U.S. roads to Mexican trucks without completing an extensive environmental study.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last January ruled that the Bush administration violated federal environmental laws when it issued new rules that would allow Mexican carriers to haul cargo throughout the lower 48 states.

The administration appealed to the Supreme Court, which yesterday agreed to make a final decision.

“The court of appeals misapplied the nation’s environmental laws and constrained the president’s discretion to conduct foreign affairs,” Theodore B. Olson, U.S. solicitor general, said in a court filing for the administration.

“The court of appeals’ decision also prolongs a significant trade dispute between the United States and Mexico,” Mr. Olson wrote.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has since 1995 required the United States and Mexico to begin opening their markets to each other’s long-haul trucks and buses. But the Clinton administration, bowing to pressure from organized labor and some in Congress, breached the agreement, citing safety concerns.

The U.S. Transportation Department in November 2002 issued the new rules that would allow Mexican operators to begin working in the United States. But the move was stopped when consumer, labor and environmental groups sued to block Mexican trucks and buses from expanding operations outside a very narrow commercial zone along the border.

The case is not scheduled for a hearing until after February, according to the Supreme Court’s public information office.

“We believe that when the Supreme Court reviews all the facts, the justices will rule that federal environmental laws require the government to determine the health impact of these trucks before — not after — they begin rolling through the American heartland,” Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen’s president, said in a statement. Public Citizen, the consumer rights group founded by Ralph Nader, took the lead in the court case.

The appeals court decision would require a $1.8 million study and delay by at least a year the border opening outlined by President Bush.

Mexico’s government has pushed for access to the U.S. market. In February 2001 it won an international arbitration panel ruling that said the United States was violating NAFTA-related obligations. The decision allows yet-to-be-determined retaliation against the United States by Mexico.

After the ruling Mr. Bush pledged to open the border by the end of 2002.

“We are not putting deadlines on this, even though we face a lot of pressure to do it. We do expect the U.S. to have a solution,” said Hector Marquez, Economy Ministry representative at Mexico’s embassy in Washington.

Even if the border is opened, though, a surge in traffic is unlikely, said James R. Giermanski, director of international business studies at Belmont Abbey College. Mr. Giermanski has testified before Congress on the trucking issue.

“It would be very difficult, if we open the border, for Mexicans to do much anyway,” he said, citing business, regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles.

But the move would eventually lead to greater efficiency along the border, Mr. Giermanski said.

Currently, one truck hauls goods to the border zone, a second makes a short trip across the border, and then a third loads the goods for the final leg of the journey.

Congress in 1982 said the United States no longer would accept applications from Mexican-based operators to work outside of the narrow border zone. Under NAFTA the United States and Mexico were supposed to drop the moratorium in phases between 1995 and 2000.

The Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2002 said it had resolved safety concerns and was to start processing 130 applications received from Mexican companies that want to operate in the United States. There are more than 500,000 U.S. carriers, according to the American Trucking Association.

The new regulations would allow Mexico-based companies to operate between the two countries, not from point-to-point within the United States. The Transportation Department said most carriers would continue to operate only in border states Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

The United States, Mexico and Canada began implementing NAFTA in 1994.

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