Peters, senator debate cross-border trucking

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A Democratic senator scolded U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on Tuesday, March 11, for allowing Mexican trucks to travel into the United States despite what he described as an unquestionable ban by Congress.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked Peters to a hearing to probe the Bush administration’s continuation of the pilot program after Congress voted to cut off funding for it. The program, which began Sept. 6, allows Mexican trucks to begin traveling beyond a 25-mile zone into the U.S. interior. U.S. trucks participating in the pilot program also are permitted to haul cargo deep into Mexico.

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. The Department of Transportation argues 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. Peters also defends the program as one that will offer a financial boost for U.S. truckers doing business in Mexico.

“This is a slap in the face of Congress,” said Dorgan, who along with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., were the only senators who participated in the hearing. Dorgan reiterated his opinion that Congress fully intended to keep Mexican trucks out of the United States, and that he regretted supporting Peters’ nomination.

Calvin Scovel III, DOT inspector general, said at the hearing that he couldn’t make any definite judgments about the program’s safety because few companies have participated in the project. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration 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.

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 12, the court hasn’t released its ruling in the case.

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.

Dorgan also wants the Government Accountability Office to see if Peters’ department has broken criminal and civil laws by using federal money contrary to the will of Congress.