San Diego Union Tribune

August 31, 2007

Allowing Mexican trucks delayed

Thursday would be earliest start date

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation has delayed plans to open the border to long-haul Mexican trucks until at least Thursday, after earlier reports that it could happen over Labor Day weekend.



In a filing yesterday in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, government attorneys said the agency expects to get the OK from its inspector general on Wednesday that would allow it to begin the controversial cross border trucking experiment.

The agency “anticipates that the program will not begin before Thursday,” the U.S. Justice Department said in its response to a Teamsters union lawsuit that seeks an emergency injunction to block the border opening.

Attorneys for both sides said last night they had no indication of how soon the court might act.

The disclosure marks the first time the agency has publicly given a specific date when the long-delayed program might begin.

The government court filing said that on the first day of the program only two Mexican carriers operating a total of seven trucks will be granted permission to cross the border.

One is Luciano Padilla Martínez, a Tijuana-based company that said it will send five trucks into the United States.

The other firm that would get immediate operating authority is Fernando Páez Treviño, a carrier in Apodaca, Nuevo Leon.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters in February announced plans for a one-year pilot program to test the safety of Mexican trucks in the United States. The agency now appears on the verge of commencing the project, in which up to 100 pre-approved Mexican carriers would be able to send hundreds of trucks throughout the United States for the first time since 1982.

American truckers who receive approval from the Mexican government would be able to travel in Mexico for the first time under the program.

The Bush administration is pushing to start the experiment as soon as possible as a step toward a wider opening of the border to commercial traffic, as required in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Critics, including several trucking and safety organizations and dozens of lawmakers, complain the administration has failed to guarantee the trucks will be safe.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, blasted the Department of Transportation for “demonstrating complete disregard for the safety of vehicle motorists and the security threat created by granting Mexican truckers unrestricted access into the United States.”

He accused the agency of ignoring congressional requirements.

“We feel like we have met the requirements,” said John H. Hill, who oversees the program as administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. He added that an upcoming assessment from the inspector general might identify some “issues and concerns” that the agency will have to address.

The pilot program cannot go forward until the inspector general certifies it has met congressional requirements.

Hill said the agency also must file a report with Congress responding to the assessment before it can start.

The inspector general's office has confidentially briefed congressional staff about the upcoming report this week.

One staff member familiar with the briefings said the inspector general had some concerns but they were “not huge issues.”

The lawsuit filed by the Teamsters and a handful of other groups Wednesday alleges the agency has failed to comply with several congressional requirements – including giving U.S. carriers simultaneous access to Mexican highways and marshaling a statistically valid sample of drivers for the project.

The government responded that the project will satisfy all congressional requirements, while requiring Mexican carriers to pass pre-certification inspections and comply with the same requirements as American truck drivers.

In an interview, Hill said no Mexican trucks would be allowed to cross the border until U.S. trucks get the same privilege.

“We will not start it unless Mexico grants authority at the same time” to U.S. truckers, he said.

The agency defended its sample of up to 100 carriers, which it said is one-tenth of the number of Mexican trucking companies that applied to cross the border.

The agency estimated the 100 carriers would send 540 trucks into the United States.

The government said further delays to the program could jeopardize diplomatic and trade relations with Mexico.

Hill said up to 44 Mexican trucks would come into the United States in the first few days of the program. “And by month's end, maybe a total of 174,” he added.