- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

Mexican truckers soon will have full access to U.S. highways under a new agreement between the United States and Mexico.

Mexican-registered trucks currently are allowed to make deliveries in the United States only within special commercial zones along the U.S.-Mexican border that extend up to 70 miles into U.S. territory.

But Thursday,the first Mexican trucks were inspected by U.S. safety officials under a Bush administration test program that will allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond the commercial zones.

There will be no limit to the number of trucks that a participating company can operate in the United States, provided the vehicles and their drivers pass safety inspections.

For the time being, the rigs won’t be allowed past the commercial zones. However, Transportation Department officials say the “on-site safety audits” are among the last obstacles for allowing full access to U.S. roads and that the trucks could receive final clearance to U.S. roads within the next two months.

The program also will allow an equal number of U.S. trucking companies to make deliveries and pickups in Mexico later this year. No U.S. companies have applied to drive into Mexico so far, Transportation Department officials said.

“The United States has never shied away from opportunities to compete, to open new markets and to trade with the world,” Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said yesterday. “Now that safety and security programs are in place, the time has come for us to move forward on this long-standing promise with Mexico.”

Mexican trucks were allowed free rein on U.S. roads before 1982, when the United States began confining them to the 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.

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

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

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, Mrs. Peters said.

The secretary added that until now, U.S. trucks haven’t been allowed into Mexico because the United States has refused to implement NAFTA provisions permitting safe cross-border trucking.

Participating Mexican companies must be insured with a U.S.-licensed firm and meet all U.S. safety standards. Companies that meet these standards will be allowed to make international pickups and deliveries and will not be allowed to move goods from one U.S. city to another, haul hazardous materials or transport passengers.

Drivers also must meet a list of safety criteria before being allowed entry into the United States, such as having a valid commercial driver’s license, proof they are medically fit, comply with U.S. hours-of-service rules and be able to understand questions and directions in English.

Every day, almost $2.4 billion in trade flows among the United States, Mexico and Canada — 75 percent of which is carried by commercial trucks, the Transportation Department says.

The Transportation Department has invested $500 million since 1995 to modernize border safety facilities and hire and train more than 500 federal and state inspectors, Mrs. Peters said.

“We have a rigorous safety inspection plan in place and we have the facilities and the trained professionals to carry it out,” Mrs. Peters said.

The American Trucking Associations has praised the administration for gaining access to Mexican roads for U.S. trucking companies.

However, the Teamsters union opposes opening the border to Mexican truckers.

“President Bush is willing to risk our national security by giving unfettered access to America’s transportation infrastructure to foreign companies and their government sponsors,” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said. The Bush administration “is playing of game of Russian roulette on America’s highways.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade association representing the independent truck owner-operators and professional drivers, also has criticized the program, saying Mexican truck companies lack credible safety records and drug and alcohol testing for drivers.

“I would suspect that this move is more to satisfy the new regime in Mexico while ignoring hard-working Americans in the trucking industry,” association Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said yesterday.

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