House votes to end Mexican trucks program

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The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, Sept. 9, passed a bill 395-18 that would block U.S. borders to Mexican trucks without congressional approval. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said that the Bush administration hasn’t fulfilled its promise to allow only a limited number of trucks into the country so that safety and driver training could be studied before expanding the program.

“This administration has been hell-bent on opening up our border, but has failed to show they can adequately inspect Mexican carriers while also maintaining a robust U.S. safety inspection program,” said DeFazio, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “The safety of the traveling public must come first before the administration’s fantasies about free trade.”

DeFazio’s bill would terminate the administration’s authority to go forward with the program without congressional consent. The Senate Appropriations Committee has added similar language to a transportation spending bill.

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 July 31 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In response, John H. Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, announced Aug. 4 that the cross-border trucking demonstration project would be extended for two years.

“The world is watching how we choose to honor our international commitments,” Hill said in response to Tuesday’s House vote. “At a time of surging exports and growing demand by U.S. truck drivers for new opportunities, it is simply irresponsible for Congress to deny American drivers the opportunity to compete in Mexico and American shippers a more efficient and timely way of getting their goods south.”

The program, which began Sept. 6, 2007, 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. DeFazio said DOT needs to look at how much the pilot has cost and the impact it has had on overall motor carrier safety.

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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.

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.

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.

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.