COX NEWS SERVICE
Lawmakers raised safety concerns yesterday over a new Bush administration program to grant Mexican truck companies long-awaited access to U.S. roadways.
The one-year pilot project, announced by the Department of Transportation last month, would allow an unlimited number of trucks from 100 screened Mexican carriers to access U.S. roads throughout the country.
After the demonstration phase, the U.S. and Mexican governments would give all carriers from both countries access to each other’s highways.
Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations transportation, housing and urban development subcommittee, wondered how the department could properly evaluate a program based on its own handpicked pool of carriers.
“I’m a little worried that only the best Mexican carriers are going to be in this pilot project,” she said at a committee hearing on the program.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, questioned how the department would properly test all Mexican drivers for drugs, monitor their driving hours and inspect the safety of their vehicles.
“Our highways are not the place to conduct experiments with potentially unsafe trucks,” Mr. Lautenberg said.
Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said the project, which begins in May, would make safety its first priority and eliminate the “very costly, very cumbersome, very outdated system” of moving freight across the Mexican border.
Trucks from Mexico currently are confined to a 25-mile border zone, where they transfer goods to short-haul vehicles that cross into the United States and make another transfer to American trucks — a process that costs U.S. consumers about $400 million a year, according to the Department of Transportation.
Mrs. Peters said the department has received more than 800 applications from Mexican carriers requesting greater access to the United States, but fewer than 10 applications from U.S. carriers requesting access to Mexico.
Annually, about 4.5 million Mexican trucks cross the U.S. border within the zone, she said.
Calvin Scovel, the department’s inspector general, said his office’s ability to inspect every carrier in the program “will be sorely tested” and would require interagency agreements that are “sometimes difficult to negotiate.”
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994, truckers from the United States, Mexico and Canada were supposed to have full access to highways in all three countries by 2000.
Mexican trucks were denied access to U.S. highways in 1995 because of safety concerns from the Clinton administration. Congress rebuffed President Bush’s efforts to open the border to Mexican trucks in 2001.
Under the new program, Mexican trucks operating in the United States would be subject to American trucking regulations, as stated in the treaty.
Several special-interest groups, including the Teamsters, insisted that the regulations are not stringent enough.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, said the project would “declare the entire southern border open to unfettered, long-haul truck commerce.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the program “an important step to enhance competitiveness, reduce pollution and promote economic growth.”
Under NAFTA, trade with Mexico has nearly quadrupled from $81 billion in 1993 to $332 billion in 2006 and most of it is moved by trucks, according to the chamber.