House bill calls for end of cross-border pilot; DOT extends it two years

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Legislation to stop the U.S. Department of Transportation from fully opening the U.S. border to Mexican trucks prior to evaluating its one-year pilot program was passed late Thursday, July 31, by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“As we approach the end of the one-year Mexican truck demonstration program, I have introduced bipartisan legislation that will terminate the program and force DOT to fully evaluate the results before it rushes to open the border,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “All along, DOT has said this would be a one-year pilot, so I’m holding them to their word.”

In response, John H. Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, announced today, Aug. 4, that the cross-border trucking demonstration project would be extended for two years. “I am pleased with the success of our demonstration project, but the participation has been limited by the uncertainty of the project’s longevity,” Hill said.

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. Hill said a number of potential companies have been unwilling to invest the time and resources necessary to participate due to uncertainties concerning the project’s longevity.

“We intend this extension to reassure trucking companies that they will have sufficient time to realize a return on their investment, and we anticipate additional participation with this extra time,” Hill said.

DeFazio said DOT needs to look at how much the pilot has cost and the impact it has had on overall motor carrier safety. “This administration has been hell-bent on opening up our border, but over the past year has failed to show they can adequately inspect Mexican carriers while also maintaining a robust U.S. safety inspection program,” he said. “The safety of the traveling public must come first before the administration’s fantasies about free trade.”

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Hill said the two-year extension “will ensure that the demonstration project can be reviewed and evaluated on the basis of a more comprehensive body of data.” Hill said that FMCSA has adhered to the law and exceeded requirements established by Congress, both safety and otherwise, for implementing North American Free Trade Agreement obligations. “To date, the project has shown that U.S. and Mexican carriers can engage in cross-border trucking operations in compliance with applicable laws and with no compromise to public safety or security,” Hill said. “In fact, Mexican trucks and drivers have established compliance rates equal or better to those of U.S. trucks and drivers.”

Last December, Congress attempting to end the pilot program by passing 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 that it interpreted “establish” as meaning to start a new program rather than to stop the current one that it says allows the United States to comply with its NAFTA commitments. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters also defended the program as one that will offer a financial boost for U.S. truckers doing business in Mexico.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Peters “continues to flout the will of Congress” by extending the program two years. “Last year, despite strong bipartisan congressional objections, she instituted what was supposed to be a one-year pilot program, allowing a limited number of selected trucking companies from each side of the border greater access to U.S. and Mexican highways,” Oberstar said. “When Congress voted to stop the program, DOT parsed the language of the law in such a way as to allow it to continue.”

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, Aug. 4, the court hadn’t released its ruling in the case.

The Teamsters and environmentalists argued before the appeals 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. “It’s outrageous that this program has been allowed to continue despite the fact that it’s endangering American lives,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “How many people must die on our highways before the Bush administration wakes up?”

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.

“Since 75 percent of our trade with Mexico moves by truck, transportation efficiency is key to the competitiveness of our manufacturers, ranchers and farmers,” Hill said. “This project supports our economy by saving consumers’ money, reducing shipping costs and giving U.S. trucking companies and drivers new opportunities. At a time of surging goods exports, we could hardly choose a worse time to turn our back on open trade and investment and embrace a protectionist agenda, especially in the very sector that makes trade in goods and services possible.”

In addition to DeFazio and Oberstar, H.R. 6630 also was introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; and Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “Given the record of DOT, without further congressional action, it can be assumed they will fully open the border to Mexican trucks without addressing significant safety concerns,” DeFazio said. “This legislation is necessary for the protection of the traveling American public.”

Hoffa praised the House officials for introducing the bill. “I commend Representative DeFazio and the members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for taking a stand to protect the lives of American drivers and their families,” he said. “This bill makes it as clear as day that Congress wants the border closed to dangerous trucks.”

Oberstar said the announcement of the program’s two-year extension being made on the first day of the congressional recess “is certainly no coincidence. When Congress reconvenes in September, I intend to move our bill as quickly as possible, and make certain that the voice of Congress is heard loud and clear at the Department of Transportation, and that this program is finally shut down.”

The extension of the demonstration project is discussed in a Federal Register notice issued today, Aug. 4; the notice is available here. FMCSA so far has granted authority to 27 Mexican carriers to operate a total of 101 trucks in the United States under the program, and the agency has allowed 10 U.S. carriers to operate a total of 52 trucks in Mexico.