San Diego Union-Tribune

July 19, 2001

Road safety of Mexican trucks questioned


WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials yesterday clashed with Congress over a White House plan to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways beginning Jan. 1.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, testifying before a Senate panel, insisted that the administration will not compromise road safety. But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., characterized the plan as a nightmare.

"We are not ready for this," she said during a Commerce Committee hearing.

Mineta told senators he was "thoroughly convinced" that the United States can meet its obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement to allow the expanded access "while putting in place an effective safety enforcement" program.

Mexican trucks cannot travel more than 20 miles from the border, except in California, where the zone extends to about 75 miles.

President Bush wants to give Mexico full access to U.S. roads, saying it is required by a seven-year-old NAFTA order that the Clinton administration declined to carry out. Clinton officials cited safety concerns amid intense pressure from the Teamsters and other labor unions.

This year, a NAFTA panel ordered the United States to lift its moratorium, and Bush vowed to do that.

But the president was handed a surprising setback last month when the House approved an amendment to a transportation bill that would deny Mexican cross-country truck traffic.

Bush threatened to veto that bill, and Mineta said yesterday the administration also has "serious concerns" about a separate Senate Appropriations Committee amendment that imposes tough inspection requirements. Mineta called the measure too burdensome, too costly and a possible violation of NAFTA regulations.

The Senate panel added $15 million to Bush's proposed $88 million expenditure to beef up inspections along the Southwest border. The House had eliminated such spending.