House panel OKs 100 Mexican carriers for pilot program

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Up to 1,000 Mexican trucks and buses would be permitted to cross the border and use U.S. roadways for the next three years under a bill endorsed by a House panel Wednesday, May 2. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted 66-0 to restrict U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to opening the border to 100 carriers based in Mexico. They would be allowed to use a maximum of 1,000 vehicles under the pilot program.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., also specifies criteria for the pilot program before it can start, including setting up an independent panel to evaluate the test program and getting certification from the Department’s independent Inspector General that safety and inspection requirements have been met. DeFazio told the Copley News Service that the legislation, which is slated to go to the full House, would “put much more scrutiny on this program than was proposed by the administration.”

Department of Transportation officials reacted to the bill’s approval by insisting they had met all the conditions laid out by Congress in 2001. “It is time to stop delaying a program that will be good for the American economy and implement the law that Congress passed 14 years ago,” DOT said in a statement.

In February, the agency first announced the proposed yearlong demonstration program to expand cross-border trucking operations with Mexico. The program 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.

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 was 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. The Mexican Senate, troubled by claims that U.S. trucks were on the verge of flooding the country, voted Wednesday, April 25, to negotiate a delay of the program until July, during which time it could be tweaked in various ways.

The Senate passed a measure Thursday, April 26, requiring that congressional mandates be met and that the United States get similar trucking privileges in Mexico as part of a bill providing money for the war in Iraq. That bill, however, was vetoed by Bush on Tuesday, May 1.

Peters announced Monday, April 30, that U.S. trucks would begin operating in Mexico at the same time Mexican trucks begin operating in the United States. Peters said the adjustments to the demonstration program were a result of recent conversations with the Mexican government and Congress. The elements of the trucking program are discussed in a Federal Register notice issued Tuesday, May 1. The Department is seeking comment over the next 30 days on the program. The notice is available online by clicking here.

The Teamsters, in announcing its support for DeFazio’s bill, said those revisions to the pilot program don’t go far enough in addressing its concerns. “The pilot program described yesterday by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has holes in it you could drive a truck through,” said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa. “Nowhere does the Bush administration state that every truck must be physically inspected before being allowed to travel freely throughout the U.S. Nowhere does it describe what criteria will be used to judge the program a failure or a success.

“We’ve been saying all along that this is an extremely unpopular program, and the fact that every Democrat and Republican present on the Transportation Committee voted for this bill proves it,” Hoffa said.

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.

As of April 26, FMCSA had done compliance reviews on 31 Mexican carriers that had applied to do business in the United States beyond the border zone, and 27 had passed, agency spokesman Ian Grossman said. Those compliance reviews include vehicle inspections, Grossman said.

The agency will continue to do compliance reviews until it reaches the target goal of 100 Mexican carriers qualified for U.S. operating authority, Grossman said. Once that authority is issued – and the date for that is still uncertain — it will be up the carriers when they actually begin doing business in the United States.

In the past two years, 800 Mexican carriers have applied for authority to operate in the United States, said Melissa Delaney, FMCSA communications director. Of that number, about 400 have completed the application.