Union Tribune

January 9, 2002

Matter of Mexican trucks, safety inspections remains puzzler

By JOE CANTLUPE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- Congressional investigators yesterday said the
nation has not made adequate progress to ensure that Mexican
trucks crossing the border meet U.S. safety standards -- except
in California, where state-run inspection facilities were praised.

The General Accounting Office report prompted some
Democratic lawmakers to step up criticism of a tentative White
House plan to open all U.S. roads to Mexican trucks as early as
May.

The GAO inquiry found that the federal Department of
Transportation made some progress but still lacks the facilities
and staffing needed to perform proper safety inspections on
Mexican trucks.

Despite years of planning, the federal government has not
established permanent inspection facilities at 23 of 25 border
crossings, according to the report.

The exceptions were the Otay Mesa and Calexico facilities in
California. They have fully staffed, high-tech inspection stations
that have been widely praised as models for the nation.

Among other things, the federal transportation department has
failed to complete arrangements with border states to manage
how dozens of federal and state inspectors will share inspection
facilities, the report says.

Reacting to the findings, transportation officials said yesterday
they were well-advanced in their efforts to improve the system.

Mexico's truck safety program also was reviewed, but the GAO
determined it was too early to gauge its effectiveness.

Democratic lawmakers who requested the study were dismayed
by the findings.

"Unsafe Mexican trucks should never be permitted to cross our
borders and place Americans in harm's way," said Rep. John
Dingell, D-Mich., who along with Rep. James L. Oberstar,
D-Minn., asked for the GAO review.

Dingell and Oberstar are ranking Democrats on the House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Mexican trucks now are limited to a 20-mile zone north of the
border. Once they reach that limit, their loads are transferred to
U.S. trucks.

But the Bush administration is working to allow thousands of
Mexican trucks to begin shipping goods to any point in the
United States. Sources said yesterday the White House hopes to
have a plan ready to allow trucks to use all this country's roads
by May or June.

Late last year, the White House reached a compromise with
Congress to allow Mexican trucks to use U.S. roads, following
sometimes acrimonious debate that focused on trade, safety and relations with Mexico.

President Bush paved the way for Mexican trucks on U.S. roads
months after taking office. The former Texas governor
overturned the Clinton administration's 1995 order that denied
Mexican trucks access to all of this country's highways. Bush
said he complied with a North American Free Trade Agreement
order.

Since then, questions of safety and adequate inspections have
persisted.

The new law that would open U.S. roads to Mexican trucks
requires inspections of each vehicle at least every 90 days -- a
cycle that has been carried out for years at California's state-run
facilities.

Mexican carriers also must show proof of insurance and hold
valid commercial driver's licenses.

As lawmakers and the White House fashioned an inspection plan, they repeatedly studies what they called the California model.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general, Kenneth
Mead, told Congress last year that the country would be in
trouble if California officials had not launched a program 15
years ago to enhance the border safety program.

Over the past years, California has spent about $35 million for
the project in sharp contrast to other states, such as Texas,
which has spent very little, even during Bush's tenure as
governor.