Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Bush administration proposal to give a limited number of Mexico-based trucking companies full access to U.S. roads will lead to only a few hundred additional Mexican trucks operating in the United States — not the thousands that critics say the program will attract, the Department of Transportation says.

The administration in February announced a one-year pilot program that would permit up to 100 Mexican trucking firms to travel anywhere in the United States, with each company allowed to operate an unlimited number of trucks in the country.

On Monday a bipartisan group of 114 U.S. House members sent a letter to President Bush, urging him to halt the test program, saying it would compromise national security by allowing “thousands” of unsafe foreign trucks and drivers into the country.

But, so far, 34 Mexican carriers have been pre-approved to operate 157 trucks in the United States, the department says.

“You have a lot of folks who say they’re concerned about the program’s safety measures, but [their complaints] don’t match the facts,” Transportation Department spokesman Brian Turmail said.

The agency said that Mexican trucks already operating in special commercial zones in U.S. territory along the Mexican border have better safety records than American trucks there.

Last year, 23 percent of U.S. trucks that were randomly inspected in the special zones were pulled off the road for safety and regulatory reasons, compared with 21 percent of the Mexican trucks inspected, the department says.

And 7 percent of U.S. truck drivers randomly stopped by inspectors in the zones in 2006 were taken off the road for such things as exceeding hourly operating limits or driving while impaired, compared with only 1.2 percent of their Mexican counterparts.

Mexican trucks in 2006 made 4.8 million border crossings into the United States at 40 U.S. inspection stations in the commercial zones, which typically extend about 25 miles into U.S. territory.

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

Under the terms of the test program, Mexican trucks must meet all U.S. safety standards and be insured with a U.S.-licensed firm.

The new program also allows for an equal number of U.S. trucking companies to make deliveries and pickups in Mexico.

Access to all U.S. highways for Mexican trucking companies was promised by 2000 under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, as was access through Mexico for U.S. carriers.

The Transportation Department said it won’t proceed with the program until its inspector general completes an audit, but said it hopes to begin giving Mexican trucks full access to U.S. roads by the end of the year.

“We’ve met and exceeded every requirement put into place for this program, and are moving forward with a careful and safe plan,” said Melissa Mazzella DeLaney, a spokeswoman with the Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

But many on Capitol Hill say that despite the precautions, there is no way to ensure that all Mexican trucks on U.S. roads will be safe.

“The U.S. Congress and the American people seriously question the ability of Mexican motor carriers and drivers to adhere to our country’s strict safety rules, as well as the administration’s preparedness and willingness to ensure Mexican truck drivers obey our homeland security and immigration rules,” said the letter sent to the White House from the 114 House members, which was drafted by Reps. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, and Nancy Boyda, Kansas Democrat.

In an attempt to delay the program indefinitely, the House in May approved the Safe American Roads Act by a vote of 411-3. The measure, sponsored by Mrs. Boyda, placed a series of restrictions on Mexican trucks and their drivers.

The Senate has yet to take up its version of the bill.

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