House votes to block Mexican carrier pilot program

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The U.S. House of Representatives on May 15 passed 411 to 3 legislation (H.R. 1773) that would block a planned pilot program to allow expansion of U.S. operations by Mexican carriers until certain requirments are met. The measure would order the federal goverment to address safety and security issues and afford the public an opportunity to review DOT’s claims that they have met all requirements as outlined in Section 350 of the 2002 transportation appropriations legislation.

“H.R. 1773 will not allow DOT to conduct a one-year pilot as a ruse, while unilaterally deciding how and when to open the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Instead, the bill provides the U.S. with an opportunity to test, evaluate and learn from the impacts of allowing Mexico-domiciled trucks on our nation’s highways, but only once a strict set of prerequisites are met and only under a specific set of conditions.”

The bill, which faces uncertain prospects in the Senate, would delay the project by requiring that it comply with a host of additional requirements. These include developing a statistically valid pilot program to test the impact of the trucks, public disclosure of details of the program, and increased scrutiny by DOT’s inspector general. The bill also requires Mexican truck drivers to be able to read and speak English.

“The DOT and Congress have a responsibility to ensure the safety of U.S. roadways,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “It is our duty to require all motor carriers to meet tough safety standards, and that Mexican-domiciled motor carriers seeking to operate in the United States meet these same stringent standards. This legislation will ensure that any pilot program conducted by the DOT will make the safety of the American people its highest transportation priority.”

Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), who introduced H.R. 1773 in late March, said at a news conference on Monday that she’s concerned the plan would invite illegal immigration and smuggling, and could lead to low-paid Mexican drivers taking the work of American truckers. Richard Oates, a 39-year trucker from Topeka, said at Boyda’s news conference that he was concerned that drivers from Mexico are ill-trained and that their rigs are hazardous. “My main concern is safety,” Oates said.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said at the press conference that the plan was a threat to national security. “This bill will inject some sanity into a program that still has far too many questions that have not been answered,” Spencer said when learning of H.R. 1773’s passage. “The DOT has provided nothing but rhetoric when asked exactly how it will implement this program. Today’s successful vote is credited to our members and the public for speaking up to their representatives. They know a sham when they see it.”

OOIDA’s stand is that U.S. borders should not open wider to trucks from Mexico until that country’s safety systems are truly compatible and U.S. officials have the means to enforce relevant laws. “Not just at the border, but in all 48 states where these trucks will run,” Spencer said. “Truckers, and all U.S. citizens, deserve that from our nation’s highest commercial vehicle safety agency.”

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.

The North American Free Trade Agreement — a treaty signed by Canada, Mexico and the United States in 1994 — pledged to open borders to all businesses, including trucking companies. Opening the U.S.-Mexican border to trucks is an important component of the north-south “NAFTA superhighway” that free-trade advocates have envisioned for years.

Since the pilot program’s announcement by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters 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. Earlier this month, DOT initiated a 30-day comment period.