San Diego Union Tribune

June 8, 2004

High court opens U.S. roads to Mexican trucks
Justices conclude air-pollution studies are not necessary


WASHINGTON The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Bush administration may open U.S. roads to long-haul Mexican trucks without the environmental studies that California and eight other states had sought.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta praised the ruling, saying it will result in "truly opening the market between Mexico and the United States for trucks and buses."

The result will be "more opportunities for American companies, more jobs for American drivers and better deals for American consumers," he said.

Labor, environmental groups and state officials have been fighting to keep Mexican trucks off U.S. highways since the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement a decade ago.

Critics of the ruling said it would result in pollution, congestion and safety hazards, particularly in border states.

Transportation officials do not expect the court's decision to have an immediate impact.

Mexican trucks will not be allowed to use U.S. highways for at least several months as officials arrange for safety inspections, authorities said.

The decision also will open the door to Mexican buses.

The ruling clears the way for the federal government to make good on NAFTA's trucking provisions. They had been held in abeyance for years, first by the Clinton administration and then through court action.

The high court granted the Bush administration's request to overturn a lower court decision that denied Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways until an environmental impact study was completed.

"This ruling gives a green light to allow trucks to cross the border with no regard for their effect on the environment," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, the nonprofit public-interest group that led the legal fight against the administration's decision.

Although Bush ordered the opening of all U.S. roads to Mexican trucks in 2002, the dispute has been tied up in the courts.

Since 1982, the federal government has imposed a moratorium on Mexican trucks from being driven throughout the country. But Mexican trucks now make about 4.5 million border crossings into the United States each year.

Mexican trucks are permitted to operate only in narrow commercial zones along the border. In most areas, the zone is 20 miles wide, but in the San Diego region, it is 45 miles. Within those zones, Mexican cargo is transferred to U.S. carriers for delivery inside the United States.

The Border Trade Alliance, a business group that works for economic growth in the Southwest, applauded the Supreme Court decision.

"The Supreme Court's decision will allow the U.S. to finally live up to the historic agreement it entered into with Canada and Mexico a decade ago," said the group's chairwoman, Jessica Pacheco. "We in the trade community are pleased to see that there will finally be an end to this dispute."

Baja California truckers also were delighted with the decision, said Rogelio Badillo Arcadia, president of the Tijuana chapter of Mexico's trucking association.

"We've been waiting to cross the border since 1994," he said.

Nearly all of the more than 4,000 trucks processed at U.S. and Mexican facilities at Otay Mesa ferry fruits and vegetables, and goods from the Baja California's maquiladora factories and transfer them to U.S. haulers.

Now that Mexican companies will be able to carry the cargo long-haul, companies using their services should see savings, said Richard Caldwell, president of the Western Maquiladora Association.

Procedural issues
Although opponents of the NAFTA trucking provision focused on environmental and safety issues in their arguments before the Supreme Court in April, the court focused on procedural issues.

The court held that the federal agency responsible for truck safety, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, should not have had to get involved in the matter.

The president "could authorize or not authorize cross-border operations from Mexican motor carriers," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the unanimous court.

The decision overturned a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2003 that found the federal government violated environmental law when it announced plans to open highways to Mexican trucks without air pollution studies.

Jonathan Weinglass, an attorney for Public Citizen and other groups opposed to the administration's plan, said the Supreme Court's decision "did not address the serious air pollution concerns posed by tens of thousands of trucks coming over the border."

Badillo said numerous Baja California truckers upgraded their equipment years ago in preparation for the NAFTA opening.

Federal transportation officials in the United States also discounted opponents' concerns about air pollution problems, saying the long-haul Mexican trucks are modern.

The coalition opposed to the Bush plan included the Environmental Law Foundation, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, California Federation of Labor AFL-CIO and California Trucking Association.

U.S. carriers hurt
The change puts U.S. carriers at a competitive disadvantage. Mexican trucks operate at lower cost than their counterparts north of the border, said Armando Freire, a San Diego trucking executive who is treasurer of the California Trucking Association.

"Their costs are about two-thirds less than ours," Freire said. But he conceded that is not important to customers.

"They just want cheap prices," he said.

The association is inclined to live with the Supreme Court decision.

"We fought as long as we could, and we're not going to fight anymore," Freire said. "We're going to stop whining and get with the program. We don't know what's next. There may be other battles we can fight at a later date."

U.S. and Mexican officials will be working to create safety procedures for the incoming Mexican trucks, officials said. At least 1,000 trucking concerns have applied for cross-border long-haul licenses.

Carriers from Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate, who previously submitted the bulk of applications to operate in the United States, are expected to be the most active in expanding operations into the United States.

Badillo predicted that as many as 500 of Baja California's 1,800 trucking companies will seek approval to make long-haul trips into the United States.

One uncertainty yesterday was whether Mexico intends to allow U.S. long-haul trucks on its highways. While Mexican carriers have been allowed to operate in the restricted U.S. zones, U.S. carriers have been banned from entering Mexico.

Badillo said Mexico will open to U.S. truckers when the United States opens to Mexican truckers.

Mexican officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Diane Lindquist: (619) 293-1812;