San Diego Union Tribune

April 22, 2007

Administration poised to open border to trucks

Mexican haulers now limited to 25-mile zone

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Mexican trucks are poised to begin rolling freely throughout the United States within weeks despite long-standing opposition from lawmakers and others who fear that opening the border poses a risk to motorists and a threat to national security.

U.S. transportation officials say they are going ahead with a one-year demonstration project that would allow 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul cargo throughout the country for the first time in 25 years.

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Despite pending legislation to block the Mexican trucks, Congress appears unlikely to act fast enough to block the program.

“At least on the House side, there doesn't appear to be any momentum toward any kind of fast-moving legislation to stop the program,” said Jim Berard, a spokesman for the majority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Bush administration is confident the program will go forward despite opposition from some lawmakers.

“We expect to give the first (Mexican trucking) company authority to operate approximately the end of April or early May,” said Ian Grossman, a U.S. Transportation Department spokesman.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have introduced legislation to delay the program until certain safety conditions and other requirements are met.

The powerful Teamsters Union and several highway safety groups say the administration has failed to prove that Mexican haulers are prepared to meet the same driver and vehicle safety standards as their U.S. counterparts.

“They're in the Dark Ages as compared to where American truckers are,” said Fred McLuckie, legislative director for the Teamsters.

The administration insists it has put in place a rigorous inspection and certification program requiring all Mexican drivers to meet all U.S. safety requirements before they drive beyond the border region.

U.S. inspection teams have been evaluating Mexican trucking firms applying for certification since late February, Grossman said. So far, they have visited 27 companies but have not certified any of them yet.

Since 1982, Mexican trucks have been restricted to travel no further than about 25 miles inside the U.S. border, where they must transfer their cargo to U.S. trucks.

NAFTA provisions to open the border to trucks in 1995 were delayed first by the Clinton administration and later by congressional action and litigation.

A U.S. Supreme Court reversal of a lower court decision in 2004 gave the go-ahead to opening the border.

The Teamsters union is pinning its hopes on stopping the program through a provision Feinstein inserted in the pending bill to fund continuing military operations in Iraq, McLuckie said.

“We're racing against the clock,” he said. McLuckie said the U.S. Transportation Department “seems just hellbent on moving forward with this program.”

Feinstein's provision would halt the program until American truckers have equal access to Mexican roads and would require it to comply with federal rules applying to pilot programs.

But the spending measure in which it is contained faces an uncertain future, as President Bush has vowed to veto it unless a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq is removed. Bush also has told Congress to remove extraneous provisions from the bill.

Feinstein issued a statement after her office was notified the administration was moving forward with the program.

Urging the administration to reconsider, she said the “arrangement is patently unfair if Mexican trucks are given access to our markets many months ahead of American trucks gaining access to Mexico.”

American negotiators agreed to give the Mexican government up to six months after the program starts to open the border to American trucks.

Teamster attorneys are looking into the possibility of suing the federal government on grounds that the program must comply with federal rules for pilot programs, McLuckie said.

Before undertaking a pilot program, the government must publish its details in the Federal Register and seek public comment. Officials also must develop a plan that includes enough participants to produce what the law calls statistically valid findings.

Administration officials say the one-year truck demonstration is not a “pilot” program since its purpose does not include evaluating alternatives to existing regulations – one of the ways pilot programs are described in the law.

“There's no relief from regulations here,” said Grossman of the Transportation Department. “It's all the same regulations – in fact in some cases more regulations for these companies.”

In the House, Hunter's proposal has attracted two dozen co-sponsors, but it lacks the backing of Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.

Committee spokesman Berard said the committee is likely to take up a bill dealing with Mexican trucking sometime in May. But even if such a bill won approval from the committee, it would face an uncertain future in the full House and Senate.

Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said that if Hunter's bill became law after cross-border trucking began, it could be used to shut down the program until the legislation's conditions were met.

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, an economist at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, said another way opponents might be able to halt the program is by attaching conditions to a “fast-track” trade authority bill sought by the president.

But he doubts such a provision would gain enough support in Congress unless opponents “can find some huge mischief” resulting from the program, such as drug smuggling or an accident involving a Mexican truck.

Hufbauer supports opening the border to Mexican trucks and said any further delays would be a blow to NAFTA.

“This absence of straight-shot trucking is the biggest single barrier now that is limiting trade between the U.S. and Mexico,” he said.

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