DOT: U.S., Mexico trucks to begin cross-border project at same time

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters announced Monday, April 30, that U.S. trucks will begin operating in Mexico for the first time ever, starting at the same time Mexican trucks begin operating north of the commercial border zone in the United States. Peters said the improvements to the demonstration program are a result of recent conversations with the Mexican government and Congress.

“We are working to give American truckers an unprecedented opportunity to compete in a substantial new market,” Peters said. “This announcement puts the program on track to lower costs for U.S. consumers, make our economy more competitive and give U.S. truckers new business opportunities.”

In February, the Department of Transportation announced a yearlong demonstration program to expand cross-border trucking operations with Mexico. The program is designed to eliminate the current cumbersome system of moving freight across the border, and replace it with a more efficient cross-border trucking process.

The program, which will involve up to 100 trucking companies from each side, is the latest attempt by the Bush administration to resolve the long-running dispute over Mexican trucks in the United States. Under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States was required to lift its ban on Mexican trucks, but the government delayed implementing that part of the agreement. Currently, Mexican trucks are allowed to enter a restricted zone in the United States, near the Mexican border, where they have to unload their cargo. It then is picked up by U.S. trucks.

DOT says the Department’s independent Inspector General has certified that the pilot program meets eight criteria addressing inspector training, inspection facilities and the development of safety procedures. DOT says it 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.

As part of the program, U.S. inspectors will conduct in-person safety audits to ensure participating Mexican companies comply with U.S. safety regulations. DOT also will require all Mexican truck drivers to hold a valid commercial drivers license, comply with U.S. medical requirements, comply with all U.S. hours-of-service rules and be able to understand questions and directions in English. Mexican truck companies that are allowed to participate must have insurance with a U.S.-licensed firm and meet all U.S. safety standards, including drug and alcohol testing. Companies that meet these stringent standards will be allowed to make international pickup and deliveries only.

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The elements of the trucking program are discussed in a Federal Register notice issued today, May 1. The Department is seeking comment over the next 30 days on the program. The notice is available online by clicking here.

Since the pilot program’s announcement in late February, members of the House and Senate, as well as several labor and environmental groups, have urged the department to provide additional information about the program and allow public comment. The pilot program also has been criticized for first allowing Mexican trucks access to the United States before U.S. trucks would be granted similar privileges in Mexico.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the Teamsters Union, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen and the Environmental Law Foundation filed suit in a federal court last Tuesday, April 24, to block the project from going forward, citing safety and environmental concerns.

“We would like to thank Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters for making this wise decision and for listening to our members who have written or called their representatives in Congress, expressing concern about safety and security,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president. “The Association has been leading a campaign to make sure its members, the media and the public are aware of the risks to safety and security. So far, the DOT officials have provided no relevant details to the public on how they plan to handle those issues. The next step should be to carefully address where we are – the loopholes and shortcomings. The public has the right to know exactly how the DOT plans to ensure the safety and security of those who drive on our highways.”

On Thursday, April 26, an amendment that could halt the plan passed the U.S. Senate as part of Congress’ $124 billion Iraq war spending bill. The same bill, complete with the trucking amendment, had passed the U.S. House on Wednesday, April 25. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would require that congressional mandates be met and that simultaneous Mexican access for American trucks be granted before proceeding with the plan.

Capitol Hill, however, was not the only place where legislators wanted to put the brakes on the plan. The Mexican Senate, troubled by claims that U.S. trucks were on the verge of flooding the country, voted Wednesday to negotiate a delay of the program until July, during which time it could be tweaked in various ways.

The proposal by Sen. Rogelio Rueda Sanchez would create a board of Mexican officials and business executives to monitor the U.S. program to ensure it is in accordance with NAFTA and to analyze the efficiency of the Free And Secure Trade lanes being implemented at U.S. border crossings. Moreover, the proposal asks the Mexican secretary of transportation to negotiate changes to make sure the program equally benefits truckers from both countries, including making sure the same number of carriers from each country are involved.

Feinstein told the Associated Press that the earlier entry time for U.S. trucks announced Monday by DOT was “good news” that will “restore fairness to this important program.” When the project was first announced in February, Peters said that Mexican trucks could enter the United States by late April. While the department has not said when the program will begin, it now will likely be sometime after the 30-day comment period announced Monday.

“This delay will provide Congress with an opportunity to evaluate the proposal and its impacts on safety and on commerce,” Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., told the AP. “I continue to be highly concerned about the preparedness of Mexican trucking companies and their drivers to abide by the same strict standards that apply to U.S. motor carrier operations.”

Jim Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, criticized the administration for “continuing to put the traveling public at risk by going forward with this reckless pilot project.”