Border opening months away

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration likely will begin permitting Mexican trucks to operate in the interior of the United States by about mid-year under a measure that became law last month. The provision, part of the law that funds federal transportation programs, was signed into law by President Bush six years to the day after the Department of Transportation first delayed implementation of the trucking provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The White House, which supports opening the border, had threatened to veto the DOT funding bill if it included restrictions on Mexican operations as proposed by either the House or Senate. Ultimately, Senate negotiators agreed to moderate the conditions they had proposed for admission of Mexican carriers, and the House gave up on delaying the border opening for at least another year.

FMCSA Administrator Joseph Clapp expects that it will be several months before the first Mexican carriers receive conditional operating authority. “There is quite a bit of work that has to be done in order to get everything ready to open the border,” Clapp told CCJ in an interview. “In order to bring all of those things together it would be my expectation that we are talking about well into the second quarter of next year.” (More from the CCJ interview with Clapp will appear in the February 2002 issue.)

Some 9,000 Mexican truckers that now operate in the commercial zones are expected to reapply to operate there. Another 3,000 to 5,000 applications are expected for operations in the interior. FMCSA believes a majority of those applicants want access to the Port of Los Angeles and other California ports.

Under the new law, a Mexican trucking company could obtain conditional operating authority only after passing an FMCSA examination of its safety management programs, drug and alcohol testing program, hours-of-service rules compliance, proof of insurance, safety history, familiarity with FMCSA rules and hazardous materials rules, maintenance and repair facilities, vehicle conditions and driver qualifications. Carriers with three or fewer vehicles would be exempt from this review.

Within 18 months of receiving conditional approval, the carrier must undergo a full compliance review and receive a satisfactory safety rating in order to get a permanent operating authority. One of those two checks would have to be conducted at the carrier’s place of business. During its first three years of operation in the U.S. interior, a Mexican carrier must obtain a safety inspection and Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance decal renewal every 90 days.

Before the border opens, FMCSA must hire, train and deploy 80 new safety inspectors at the border. Inspectors will spend nearly two months in the Transportation Department’s National Training Center in Arlington, Va., before being assigned to the field for additional instruction.

Other hurdles include a string of new safety-related rules and policies required by the law, although FMCSA can adopt those changes on an interim basis.

The law requires the DOT inspector general to review the department’s ability to ensure Mexican trucks operate safely. In addition, the DOT secretary must certify in writing that opening the border does not pose an “unacceptable safety risk to the American people.” Six months later, the IG must conduct a follow-up review.

The 10 highest-volume border crossings must be equipped with weigh-in-motion equipment. Mexican trucks will be allowed to enter the country only at border crossings with safety inspectors on duty and enough capacity to inspect a sufficient number of vehicles or place them out of service.

Mexican hazmat carriers would be barred from operating beyond the commercial zones until the United States and Mexico complete an agreement to insure that Mexican hazmat carriers meet equivalent safety requirements.

The American Trucking Associations praised the legislation. “This is great news for the American trucking industry and our ATA motor carriers,” said ATA President William Canary. “It gives us the open borders we need to freely do our job of moving freight and helping to rebuild the U.S. economy.” Moreover, Canary said, the measure upholds the notion that trucks entering the United States from Mexico must meet the same safety standards that U.S. carriers do.