U.S., Mexico agree on cross-border trucking

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U.S. trucks will, for the first time, be allowed to make deliveries in Mexico under a year-long pilot program that expands cross-border trucking operations with Mexico. About 100 U.S. operators would be licensed by Mexico for cross-border operations, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters announced today, Feb. 23.

Also, truck safety inspectors working for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will be able to travel to Mexico to conduct extensive safety audits on companies interested in hauling cargo into and out of the United States, Peters announced.

U.S. trucks will get to make deliveries into Mexico, while a select group of Mexican trucking companies will be allowed to make deliveries beyond the 20- to 25-mile commercial zones currently in place along the Southwest border, Peters said while visiting truck inspection facilities in El Paso, Texas.

The new demonstration program was designed to simplify a process that currently requires Mexican truckers to stop and wait for U.S. trucks to arrive and transfer cargo. Peters said this process wastes money, drives up the cost of goods and leaves trucks loaded with cargo idling inside U.S. borders.

Under current rules, U.S. trucks are not allowed into Mexico because the United States refused to implement provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that would have permitted safe cross-border trucking. “The United States has never shied away from opportunities to compete, to open new markets and to trade with the world,” Peters said. “Now that safety and security programs are in place, the time has come for us to move forward on this longstanding promise with Mexico.”

“We are committed to retaining a high level of security and safety standards under this program,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “The tough security measures we already have in place will remain unchanged, resulting in a smart and secure approach to safeguarding the border, while allowing for American and Mexican carriers to deliver cargo outside of arbitrary commercial zones.”

“Today’s announcement is another sign of the strength of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and a further step toward making our economies globally competitive, promoting mutual economic growth and prosperity while continuing to protect the safety of our borders,” said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. “Safety is the number one priority, and strict U.S. safety standards won’t change. We will continue to work closely with President (Felipe) Calderon and his administration on ways we can further enhance the commerce of our countries and the competitiveness of our hemisphere without sacrificing safety or security.”

In 2001, Congress authorized the cross-border inspection program and listed 22 safety requirements that had to be in place before other steps were implemented. The Department of Transportation’s independent Inspector General’s reports have confirmed success in meeting the congressional requirements, Peters said. DOT has invested $500 million since 1995 to modernize border safety facilities and hire and train the more than 500 federal and state inspectors who inspect trucks crossing the border every day, Peters said.

“We have years of experience, we have a rigorous safety inspection plan in place, and we have the facilities and the trained professionals to carry it out,” Peters said. “Through this new pilot program, we are finding a better way to do business with one of this nation’s largest trading partners, and in doing so, bringing U.S. drivers more opportunity, U.S. consumers more buying power and the U.S. economy even more momentum.”

Safety audits

U.S. inspection teams now will be able to visit Mexican trucking companies to ensure their trucks and drivers meet the same safety, insurance and licensing requirements that apply to all U.S. truckers, Peters said while visiting a trucking company in Monterrey, Mexico, to announce the inspection program with Mexican Secretary of Communications and Transportation Luis Téllez. Inspectors will evaluate truck maintenance and driver testing for compliance with U.S. requirements, Peters said.

The inspection teams also will check that drivers have a valid commercial driver’s license, have a current medical certificate and can comply with U.S. hours-of-service rules. The teams will review driving histories for each driver the company plans to use to operate within the United States and verify the company is insured by U.S.-licensed firms.

Finally, each inspection team will verify that every U.S.-bound truck has passed a comprehensive safety inspection. Trucks lacking required documentation will be subject to a “hood to tail-lamps” inspection by the teams. “With this new program, we prove that safety and economic growth are compatible,” Peters said.

Peters said the inspection program is needed before the United States can allow trucks from Mexico to operate beyond the currently existing border commercial zones that include cities like San Diego and El Paso. “This program will make trade with Mexico easier and keep our roads safe at the same time,” Peters said.

The American Trucking Associations voiced approval for the announcements. “Such regulation of Mexican carriers operating in the United States will ensure a level playing field in cross-border operations,” said Clayton Boyce, ATA’s vice president of public affairs. “Ensuring a level playing field also requires that when U.S. carriers are to begin operations in Mexico, the permitting and regulatory processes put in place by the government of Mexico must be fair, clear and transparent.”

Angry reaction

The news drew an angry reaction from labor leaders, safety advocates and members of Congress. They said Mexico has substandard trucks and low-paid drivers that will threaten national security, cost thousands of jobs and endanger motorists on the northern side of the Mexican border. “They are playing a game of Russian roulette on America’s highways,” said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman questioned how the United States could spare sending inspectors to Mexico when only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. truck companies are inspected every year. “They lack the inspectors to conduct safety reviews of at-risk domestic carriers,” Hersman said. “That situation only gets worse if resources are diverted to the border.”

One-fourth of all U.S. trucks are taken off the road after random inspections because they’re so unsafe, Hersman said. An even higher percentage of Mexican trucks are taken off the road at Texas border crossings, she said.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said inspections will be meaningless because the trucks won’t have black boxes that record how long a driver has been behind the wheel. “They have no way of telling how many hours these truck drivers have been driving before they get to the U.S., let alone when they get here,” Claybrook said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, announced a March 8 hearing to determine whether the arrangement meets safety requirements. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Highways subcommittee, said Congress will keep a close eye on the program.