Roadblocks to Mexican trucks remain, audit says

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should not grant long-haul operating authority to Mexican carriers until American and Mexican authorities agree on on-site safety reviews, according to a recent audit that also noted hundreds of Mexican trucks already operating well beyond designated border zones.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling that would have required federal officials to conduct a lengthy environmental study before opening the border. At that time Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the ruling “opens the way for the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue working with Mexican authorities to move forward with long-haul bus and truck operations.”

This month, the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation released its audit in compliance with a 2002 congressional act requiring the OIG to periodically review the agency’s border operations. That law prevents the FMCSA from using funds to review or process Mexican carriers seeking authority until certain safety requirements and preconditions are met. Those requirements include that half of Mexican carriers applying for authority be reviewed on-site and that on-site reviews cover at least 50 percent of the estimated truck traffic each year.

The OIG reported that the agency shouldn’t grant operating authority until the two countries reach agreement on conducting on-site reviews.

Additionally, the OIG said the agency needs to have an agreement with Mexico before Mexican carriers can haul hazmat beyond the commercial zone, in light of new requirements for U.S. drivers resulting from the Patriot Act. The two countries are negotiating this issue as well.

The FMCSA and the Transportation Security Administration have agreed that the TSA will lead negotiations on a hazmat agreement, given that the TSA is responsible for identifying security threats.

The OIG also said the agency should close gaps in reaching full compliance with the congressional rules related to enforcement authority, bus coverage, weigh-in-motion systems, and the comprehensiveness of the system monitoring Mexican driver records in the United States.

The agency also needs measures in place to allow effective enforcement, the OIG said. The FMCSA issued an interim final rule in 2002 requiring state inspectors to place Mexican trucks out of service if operating without authority or beyond their authority.

As of July, the OIG said, only Alaska, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina still needed to adopt this rule to enforce operating authority.

However, OIG discussions with officials in 14 states indicated only four were prepared to place vehicles out of service, while the rest would issue fines or citations or take no action pending more federal guidance.

Outside of that, OIG stated the FMCSA has sufficient staff, facilities, equipment, and procedures in place to “substantially meet” the congressional provisions. The out-of-service rate for Mexican trucks has declined in recent years from 40 percent to 23 percent in FY 2003, almost identical to the 22 percent for American carriers, the OIG said. As of September, the agency had received applications from 678 Mexican carriers seeking authority to operate 4,000 vehicles, the OIG said.

The FMCSA database indicated that between September 2002 and May 2004, there were 197 inspections and nine crashes in non-border states involving 144 Mexican carriers that were not authorized to operate beyond the border zone. But the OIG noted that several of the nine crashes may have been wrongly attributed to a Mexican carrier.

Auditors found during their visits that weigh-in-motion systems were not working at four of the 10 highest volume crossings, but by September, all but one was in operation. The agency has agreed it will fund the 10 weigh-in-motion systems and require states to maintain them.

Also, the system for monitoring Mexican driver records in the United States need to improve, the OIG said. As of June, Texas had listed more than 4,000 convictions to California’s 19.

Finally, the office listed areas it believes the agency should deal with beyond the compliance issues outlined in that federal provision:

  • Quality of Mexican carriers’ data, which will depend in part upon the success of FMCSA in addressing quality issues in Safe-Stat.
  • Verifying insurance information, including the 1,300 Mexican carriers given operating authority because they were at least 55 percent American owned.
  • Drug and alcohol testing. Until Mexican labs meet federal drug testing lab standards, the nation’s labs are sending specimens to U.S. labs for processing. Also, collection facilities in Mexico are not reviewed by American officials. The United States and Mexico are developing a plan on this issue.
  • A replacement for the Eagle Pass, Texas, inspection facility is uncertain. It is one of the 10 largest volume crossings and will be displaced within a year. The agency is working with the General Services Administration to deal with this.
  • The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a FMCSA-proposed rule that all carriers operating in the United States, including Mexican carriers, use only commercial vehicles certified by manufacturers meeting all federal safety standards. The OIG stated that this was important to resolve if increasing number of Mexican carriers operate in the United States.