Cross-border pilot program monitoring to begin this month

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Starting later this month, trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a new demonstration program will have equipment on board that allows them to be monitored as they pick up and deliver their loads.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced its timeframe Monday, Nov. 5, noting the decision to require the installation of satellite tracking technology on trucks in the program was made after members of Congress expressed a desire to know whether participants are complying with federal safety and trade laws. FMCSA first announced its plans to monitor participants in late September.

The satellite-based technology, developed by San Diego-based Qualcomm Incorporated, will be used to track trucks by vehicle number and company only – no driver information will be collected. According to FMCSA, the technology will help continue to ensure that trucks operating as part of the program are complying with the agency’s safety standards and U.S. trade laws.

The agency initially will spend about $367,000 to outfit all trucks from the United States and Mexico that take part in the program, and use the information gathered from the equipment to ensure trucks comply with hours-of-service laws and rules that govern the trips into and out of the country. The GPS-based technology also will allow real-time tracking of truck location, documenting every international-border and state-line crossing.

The systems will be installed at no cost to the participating trucking companies – it is not required on U.S. trucking companies operating solely within the United States, said John Hill, FMCSA administrator.

In September, the Department of Transportation began a cross-border trucking demonstration project that will allow up to 100 U.S. trucking companies to operate in Mexico and up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond commercial zones in the United States. The future of the program is in jeopardy due to pending legislation that would cut off federal funds for the demonstration.

While critics of the program — including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the Teamsters union and a number of members of Congress — have raised safety concerns about Mexican trucks, FMCSA argues that thousands of Mexican trucks already operate every day in U.S. cities such as San Diego and El Paso, Texas. In 2006 alone, Mexican trucks crossed into the United States 4 million times, while no U.S. trucks were allowed to enter Mexico. For years, however, those Mexican trucks have been limited to the 25-mile border commercial zone within the United States.

The fiscal year began Oct. 1, and the House and Senate have yet to pass a consensus version of the DOT appropriations bill. Congress passed a so-called continuing resolution that provides federal funding through Friday, Nov. 16, while lawmakers resolve differences on the various appropriations bills.

OOIDA has expressed its skepticism of FMCSA’s satellite tracking system. “It may sound impressive to those unfamiliar with the industry or the limits of the technology, but closer scrutiny verifies it’s a cosmetic cover-up for a poorly conceived program,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said Sept. 28 when FMCSA first announced its plans to use satellite tracking. “You can polish up a rock, but then you’ll just have a shiny rock.”

Spencer doubted FMCSA’s claims that the system will monitor whether drivers are complying with driving time limits, saying the agency cannot even currently do this with U.S. drivers, not without checking paperwork or other manual records. “I don’t see how this ensures anything from a safety or security standpoint,” he said. “We’d like FMCSA to explain in more detail exactly how this system will actually keep track of the hours of service of a trucker.”

Spencer pointed out that FMCSA stated that no driver information will be collected or tracked. “And as we might have expected, FMCSA has U.S. taxpayers picking up the tab for this from money that should be spent on highways and bridges,” he said.