Mexico program at road’s end?

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s cross-border pilot program appears to be headed to its final demise – at least for the current fiscal year – as Congress works on a so-called omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 2764) that wraps together 11 of the 12 government spending bills for 2008 — except for that of the Department of Defense, which was already funded.

A compromise bill that passed the House on Monday, Dec. 17, included a prohibition on funding the program that already had been adopted as part of the conference report on the Department of Transportation funding bill (H.R. 3074). The DOT bill never became law, however, because President Bush objected to the spending levels originally adopted.

The Senate on Tuesday, Dec. 18, approved the omnibus bill, which provides $631 million more than Bush requested in infrastructure and highway funding and $1 billion more than he requested to address aging bridges. The final vote on the roughly $555 billion bill — which passed 76-17 — came at about 11 p.m. ET after hours of debate that included two more attempts by Senate Democrats to tie war funding to a plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Before the Senate’s vote, the White House issued a statement that unless the Iraq amendment to be introduced by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was included in the package, Bush would veto the bill. That implied that the elimination of the cross-border trucking program was no longer considered a deal-breaker by the White House.

The bill also retained language that:

  • Prohibits interstate tolling in Texas. The amendment was introduced to the Senate’s version of the transportation bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and was kept in the final version;
  • Allows states to adopt tougher security rules for chemical plants than federal standards; and
  • Delays a new security rule requiring passports at all U.S. border crossings until no earlier than June 1, 2009.
  • 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.

    Thus far, FMCSA has granted authority to 10 Mexican carriers to operate a total of 55 trucks in the United States under the program, and four U.S. carriers have been allowed to operate a total of 41 trucks in Mexico. FMCSA had notified an additional 37 Mexican carriers that they had successfully passed a pre-authorization safety audit.

    The San Diego Union-Tribune reported today, Dec. 19, that the Mexican government is considering blocking U.S. exports, such as pork and rice, should funding for the cross-border program be cut off. There also is a growing expectation that the Bush administration will find a way to continue the program, according to the newspaper.

    “We anticipate that they’ll find a way to keep it going,” said Leslie Miller, a spokeswoman for the Teamsters union, which opposes the program. “We know that they will do whatever they can to keep this program going.”

    U.S. transportation officials declined to tell the Union-Tribune how they would respond to a cutoff of congressional funds. “We’re going to wait and see what happens and evaluate our next steps,” FMCSA spokeswoman Melissa Mazzella DeLaney told the newspaper.

    Janet Kavinoky, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyist who focuses on transportation legislation, told the Union-Tribune she has been told that if the program is ended, “Mexico will retaliate by not allowing exports of U.S. pork, rice and possibly other products – because we’re violating NAFTA.”

    Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy, declined to tell the Union-Tribune what action Mexico would take if the program ends.