San Diego Union Tribune

August 30, 2007

Lawsuit targets Mexican truckers

Teamsters lead fight against test program

WASHINGTON – The Teamsters filed a lawsuit yesterday to block what the union said is an unannounced government plan to open the southern border to long-haul Mexican truck traffic as early as Saturday.

Bush administration transportation officials are not saying publicly when they expect to begin a long-delayed pilot program to test the safety of Mexican trucks on U.S. highways.

But in a lawsuit filed in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Jonathan Weissglass, an attorney representing the Teamsters, said he was told by a Justice Department official that the program will start Saturday.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is in charge of the pilot program, did not return phone calls seeking reaction to claims that the agency will begin the program soon.

The Teamsters and other opponents, including other trucking and safety organizations, say Mexican truckers would pose a danger on U.S. highways. They argue that Mexican truckers are not subject to the same driving standards, drug and alcohol testing and law enforcement as U.S. drivers.

“What a slap in the face to American workers – opening the highways to dangerous trucks on Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest driving weekends of the year,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a statement.

U.S. Transportation Department officials said they have developed a “rigorous safety inspection plan” requiring Mexican truck drivers in the program to meet the same standards as U.S. truckers.

Officials say Mexican drivers who have been allowed to travel in a limited, 25-mile zone in the United States have compiled a safety record superior to that of U.S. truck drivers.

Under the program, up to 100 Mexican carriers that pass inspections conducted by U.S. officials would be allowed to send trucks into the United States in a one-year demonstration. The plan also allows for U.S. truck drivers to cross into Mexico.

The Teamsters and several co-plaintiffs, including the Sierra Club, Public Citizen and the Environmental Law Foundation, are seeking an injunction to block the program. The court asked the administration to file a response today.

In the lawsuit, they claim the administration has failed to comply with safety-related requirements that Congress mandated this year, including a requirement to demonstrate that the program will “yield statistically valid findings.”

The lawsuit contends that officials have failed to show that U.S. truck drivers would be given simultaneous access to Mexican roads when the program begins. It says officials have failed to publish required information about U.S.-conducted safety checks of Mexican carriers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration blasted the lawsuit as being “without merit.”

“Our program will benefit consumers by reducing the costly practice of requiring all cross-border shipments to be hauled by three separate trucks operated by three different drivers and provide U.S. trucking companies the opportunity to expand their business into our nation's third-largest trading partner,” the agency said.

The administration argues that opening the border, as required in the North American Free Trade Agreement, will remove barriers to trade and reduce costs to consumers.

Congress passed a law this year barring the program until the Transportation Department's inspector general certifies that it complies with congressional requirements.

The inspector general's office has declined to say when it will issue its evaluation.

But in a court filing yesterday, Weissglass said he was told by Justice Department attorney Irene Solet that the Transportation Department expects to get the certification by tomorrow. Weissglass said Solet told him the agency intends to kick off the program Saturday.