Senate panel addresses U.S.-Mexico cross-border pilot program

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By Todd Dills

The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Thursday, March 8, that he had no confidence that U.S. and Mexican trucking standards are equivalent, as Congress said six years ago must happen before any opening of the border to trucks.

During a hearing on the Bush administration’s proposed pilot program for cross-border trucking, DOT Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III also cited flaws in the drug-testing regime planned for Mexican drivers. Urine samples will be collected in Mexico, but the analysis will be done in the United States, because no lab south of the border is certified to U.S. standards.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., expressed dismay at the lack of a secure method of sample collection. “Our highways are not the place to conduct experiments by allowing potentially unsafe trucks on the road,” he said.

The plan, announced in February as possibly beginning as soon as May, initially will allow 100 Mexican carriers access to the U.S. market in international shipments beyond the present border commercial zone. An equivalent number of U.S. carriers will get access to the Mexican market later.

Mexican representatives were conspicuously absent from the hearing. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, opened proceedings with the news that Manuel Rodriguez Arregui, Mexican undersecretary of transportation, would not be appearing as announced.

Murray questioned a pilot program that she charged appeared to be more “show than scrutiny,” working ultimately toward a conclusion already arrived at and agreed to by both nations in the North American Free Trade Agreement — an open border for U.S. and Mexican trucks.

“We are told that Mexican firms will have full access to the U.S. market in just a few weeks,” Murray said, adding that U.S. firms will have to wait at least six months for access to the Mexican market. “That doesn’t sound like equal access to me,” Murray said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said delays on the Mexican side of the border were the result of a lengthy suspension of planning during the tumultuous Mexican election of 2006, when inauguration of the apparent winner, Felipe Calderon, was delayed by massive and occasionally violent protests by supporters of rival candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The disruption the election caused, Peters said, also was the reason there were so few U.S. carrier applicants. “We have more than 800 applications from Mexican carriers who do want to access the United States,” Peters said. “There are less than 10 applications from U.S. carriers who do want to access Mexico at this time.”

Expressing skepticism of the pilot program were freight broker Charles Parfrey, a former owner-operator representing the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union.

Hoffa introduced Teamsters-sponsored reporter Charles Bowden, who described a cavalier attitude toward drug abuse among long-haul Mexican drivers. “Nobody can make these long runs without cocaine and crystal meth,'” Hoffa read from the reporter’s work, “and then they do marijuana to come down from the high.”

As an example of grueling Mexican long hauls, Bowden cited a 2,700-mile run from Ensenada to Cancun over the course of five days, a haul of less than 600 miles a day.

Support for the pilot program was voiced by James P. Worthington, president of Con-way Freight-Southern, representing the American Trucking Associations, and John Flicker, president of the Industrial Transportation League, a shippers’ group. They emphasized the inefficient nature of the current drayage system under which cargo is transferred from Mexican to U.S. trucks in the commercial zone.

Echoing FMCSA Administrator John Hill, they said they hoped the pilot program would prove to skeptics that safety concerns were being addressed and that opening the border was in the interests of the American public, as well as the American business community.

“Motor carriers have not had an opportunity to seize NAFTA’s full promise of improved transportation efficiencies to handle the increasing trade flows,” Worthington said.

Worthington added, however, that the six-month delay in opportunity for U.S. carriers to do business in Mexico was unacceptable, a point also made by ATA President Robert Graves in his recent meeting with Arregui in Arlington, Va.

Mexican trucks had free run of the United States until 1982, when Congress closed the border to both Canadian and Mexican trucks until U.S. trucks obtained equally free run of those nations. Canada quickly complied, but Mexico did not, and the issue of Mexican trucks in the United States has dragged on ever since.