Negotiators agree to block cross-border funds, prohibit Texas tolls

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A House-Senate conference committee on Thursday night, Nov. 8, agreed to a fiscal 2008 transportation spending bill that would block funding for the Department of Transportation’s pilot program allowing long-haul trucking across the U.S.-Mexico border, wire services reported today, Nov. 9. The full House and Senate still must approve the conference report, and President Bush must sign it.

The committee’s version of the transportation bill also retains language that prohibits interstate tolling in Texas. The amendment was introduced to the Senate’s version of the bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and was kept in the final version, according to a statement from Hutchinson’s office. Another amendment aimed at blocking tolls on Pennsylvania’s I-80 did not make it into the final version of the bill.

The cross-border program, which has been in place since Sept. 6, allows a limited number of Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond the 25-mile commercial zone in the United States. Under a reciprocity agreement with Mexico, the one-year pilot program also allows a limited number of U.S. carriers to operate into Mexico.

Critics argue that the program lacks enough safeguards to ensure that Mexican trucks meet the same safety standards as American trucks. Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told Copley News Service that his group was confident that Congress would pass the transportation bill and shut down the program. The Teamsters also told Copley it was satisfied with the committee’s action.

A spokesman for Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told CCJ that Peters regretted the action but that she isn’t giving up on the program until a prohibition becomes law. “It is a sad day for our country whenever fear and protectionism take precedence over safety and opportunity,” DOT spokesman Brian Turmail told CCJ. “That being said, the secretary will continue to work with the Congress to ensure the members are aware of the many aggressive safety measures that are in place for this program and that they understand how much it will benefit U.S. truck drivers and U.S. consumers.

“Until the law changes, we will continue to follow the law of the land and ensure the highest levels of safety with this program,” Turmail said. “In addition, the secretary continues to remain optimistic about this program because ultimately we have the facts on our side. And, of course, she finds it difficult to accept that Congress would simply walk away from the $500 million it has invested in new state-of-the-art inspection facilities and new federal inspectors for this program since 1994.”

The Bush administration still has one more potential trick up its sleeve: a veto threat. Within the next day or so, the Office of Management and Budget could issue a statement of administration policy on the transportation funding bill. The letter to Congress likely would signal whether the Bush administration supports the Mexican truck program enough to threaten a veto of the entire funding bill. But even if Bush vetoed the bill, the initial overwhelming votes in the House and Senate on the Mexican truck ban would be sufficient to override a veto.

Meanwhile, DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration continue to pursue the pilot program. On Monday, Nov. 5, FMCSA provided more information on its decision to require the installation of satellite tracking technology on trucks participating in the program. FMCSA said the decision 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.

FMCSA would use Qualcomm’s technology to track trucks by vehicle number and company only – no driver information would be collected. The agency initially would 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, said John Hill, FMCSA administrator.

Hutchison, whose amendment would ban tolling on existing interstates in Texas until September 2008, hopes for more permanent legislation in the future. In February, the Texas DOT released its legislative agenda in a report called “Forward Momentum,” which seeks changes in federal law that would allow such buybacks for the purpose of tolling interstate highways.

“Today we are one step closer to protecting Texas taxpayers from paying twice for a federal highway,” Hutchison said in a press release. “I will continue working with my colleagues to push for a permanent prohibition of tolling existing federal highways.”

“Using toll roads to double-tax Texans is just plain wrong,” said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat. “I am very pleased that the final Transportation conference agreement contains an anti-tolling provision for federal highways in Texas. The citizens of Texas have spoken, and they do not want the federal highways they have already paid for to be converted into toll roads.”

The amendment aimed at blocking tolls on Pennsylvania’s I-80 had been filed in July by Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., but it not make it into the final version of the bill.

“Pennsylvania’s best and most successful businesses will be immensely burdened under this tolling and borrowing scheme,” said Peterson, who added that companies impacted by tolls will be forced to pass those costs along to consumers. “Millions of dollars in increased operating costs hold dire consequences on us all. Tolling I-80 is akin to a ‘closed for business’ sign in Pennsylvania.”