Senate may vote today on cross-border funding

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Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa on Monday, Sept. 10, urged the Senate to act swiftly and decisively to block funding for the Bush administration’s Mexican truck program. Hoffa said the program threatens highway safety and national security.

“Tomorrow will be the sixth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil,” Hoffa said Monday. “I don’t see how any patriotic American could vote to allow these dangerous trucks to cross our borders and travel freely throughout our country.”

At about 12:50 CT Saturday morning, Sept. 8, the first Mexico-domiciled truck authorized under the Bush administration’s pilot program to transport cargo within the United States cleared federal inspections at the U.S. border in Laredo, Texas, bound for North Carolina. Transportes Olympic became the first Mexican carrier authorized to operate in the United States beyond the so-called commercial zone as part of the program.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government approved El Paso, Texas-based Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution as the first U.S. trucking company to operate in Mexico.

Teamsters and other critics of the program charge that it would allow trucks and drivers that do not meet American standards on the nation’s roads. Their complaints include that not enough inspectors exist to inspect every Mexican truck, lack of Mexican drug testing facilities and that Mexican trucks don’t meet U.S. safety standards. Also, they fear for American jobs, as Mexican truckers work far cheaper than their American counterparts.

Hoffa said the union would fight the program to the Supreme Court. The Teamsters, Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation and the Sierra Club unsuccessfully sued to halt the program. “We don’t know who’s driving these trucks, and we don’t know what they’re carrying,” Hoffa said. “Weapons that could be used in a terrorist attack might be in the backs of these trucks.”

The Senate began debate Monday night on the 2008 Transportation Appropriations bill, a $104.6 billion transportation and housing funding package for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. Monday night, on a 60-33 vote, the Senate approved $1 billion to repair and replace U.S. bridges, six weeks after the Interstate 35W span collapsed in Minneapolis, the Associated Press reported. The plan, which would boost federal funding for bridge repair and replacement by 20 percent, falls short of the $65 billion the U.S. Department of Transportation says is needed for bridge repairs, AP reported.

Today, the Senate may vote on Senate Amendment 2797 offered by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. The amendment mirrors language passed by the House (H.R. 3074) on July 24 that blocks funding for the cross-border program. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this morning he hoped that work on the transportation package could be wrapped up today, but he also warned his colleagues that to do that, they’d likely be working late tonight.

The House previously had tried several times in recent months to block the program. The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved H.R. 1773, the Safe American Roads Act of 2007, 66-0 on May 2; the House passed it 411-3. The legislation allowed a three-year pilot program, but only under specific conditions and once all prerequisites are met to ensure safety. The bill, which included mechanisms to shut the program down if there is any detrimental effect on safety, also required Congress to pass additional legislation for the border to open fully beyond the limited pilot program.

In May, Congress passed and President Bush signed supplemental funding legislation that imposed a number of conditions and prerequisites on the proposed pilot program, including some – but not all – of the measures included in H.R. 1773.

The announcement on Thursday, Sept. 6, that U.S. and Mexican trucks had been cleared for the program followed the release earlier that day of a congressionally mandated report from the DOT’s Office of Inspector General as well as DOT’s response to the report, which also was required under the legislation enacted in May to establish the terms under which the pilot program could move forward.

“This long-awaited project will protect public safety on American highways as we work to both save consumers money and help our economy,” said FMCSA Administrator John Hill.

According to FMCSA, the DOT IG affirmed FMCSA’s plans to go beyond statutory requirements and check every truck that crosses the border as part of the demonstration project. FMCSA’s response, delivered in a letter to Congress, describes the planned coordination among federal truck inspectors, state officials and Customs and Border Protection personnel in conducting the checks. The agency also said it is working with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriff’s Association and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance to ensure its state partners have the necessary information to oversee safety.