FMCSA’s Hill hints at extending cross-border trucking program

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The U.S.-Mexico cross-border trucking pilot program, which has reached its halfway point, has drawn fewer participants than expected, raising the chance that it might be extended to collect additional results, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported today, March 7.

In an interview with the newspaper, John Hill, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, blamed opposition to the program in Congress and among groups such as the Teamsters union for depressing participation. Trucking companies are reluctant to pay several thousand dollars a year for insurance required to cross the border “in light of the uncertainty of whether or not it is going to continue,” Hill told the Union-Tribune.

The program 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 pilot program also allows a limited number of U.S. carriers to operate into Mexico. The Department of Transportation program, which began Sept. 6, is scheduled to last one year.

Hill, who has overseen the program since its inception, said one way to collect additional safety data would be to extend the program beyond its scheduled end. “I think it will depend on how much interest we see after the congressional uproar,” he told the Union-Tribune.

On Feb. 14, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard arguments about whether the Bush administration can go ahead with the program despite congressional attempts to stop it; as of today, March 7, the court hasn’t released its ruling in the case. The Senate Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing the program Tuesday, March 11.

In December, Congress passed legislation banning funding to “establish” a program that allows U.S.-certified Mexican trucks to carry loads across the border and into the country. DOT argued before the appeals court that it interprets “establish” as meaning to start a new program rather than to stop the current one that allows the United States to comply with its North American Free Trade Agreement commitments.

The Teamsters and environmentalists argued before the court that the program will erode highway safety and eliminate U.S. jobs; they also say there are insufficient safeguards to ensure Mexican trucks are as safe as U.S. carriers. Supporters of the plan say letting more Mexican trucks on U.S. highways will save American consumers hundreds of millions of dollars. And they say U.S. trucking companies will benefit since reciprocal changes in Mexico’s rules permit U.S. trucks new access to that country.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said a broad coalition of more than 69 U.S. companies and agricultural and business organizations support the program because of the benefits it provides to U.S. exporters who every year ship billions of dollars worth of products and produce into Mexico. Should Congress choose to end the program, Mexico has the right under the rules of NAFTA to impose fees and tariffs on U.S. goods that could result in lost business and lost jobs, she said.

“Whatever their reason, this is no time to let the politics of pessimism dim the promise of prosperity for hundreds of thousands of American drivers, growers and manufacturers,” Peters said. “We should be looking for every chance to open new markets for our drivers, to find new buyers for our products, and encourage new consumers for our produce.”

Peters said the program was designed to give American companies their first-ever access to the highly lucrative business of moving goods across the southern border. “Our drivers and our workers don’t deserve a timeout from success and prosperity,” Peters said. “So my message to Congress is clear. If you want to help American businesses thrive, support American agricultural success and champion American highway safety, then keep on trucking with cross-border shipping.”

FMCSA so far has granted authority to 18 Mexican carriers to operate a total of 62 trucks in the United States under the program, and that six U.S. carriers have been allowed to operate a total of 46 trucks in Mexico. FMCSA had notified an additional 28 Mexican carriers that they had successfully passed a pre-authorization safety audit.