Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Company.  All rights reserved.

Federal program allowing Mexican trucks deeper into the country causes uproar in Arizona

by Luige del Puerto

PHOENIX, AZ: Arizona Capitol Times — A federal pilot program allowing Mexican trucks to drop payload beyond the commercial zones near the U.S. borders and farther into U.S. territory was launched this month, causing an uproar among conservative lawmakers in Arizona.

Federal authorities plan to approve up to 100 Mexican trucking firms in the program, which would allow about 500 trucks deeper into the country. An equal number of U.S. firms would be allowed to operate in Mexico.

Two Mexican truckers subsequently delivered steel construction materials in New York and South Carolina. 

"It's just a bad idea," said Sen. Ron Gould, R-3, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. "Essentially, we can't get guarantees that these trucks are going to be conformed to state safety standards."

In fact, the Arizona Senate unanimously approved in June a memorial, a "postcard" to Congress, asking the federal government to suspend the cross-border trucking pilot program on safety and environmental grounds.

The author of the memorial, Sen. Karen Johnson, R-18, told the Arizona Capitol Times she is considering introducing a measure next year to try to halt it anew.

Johnson and Gould, however, were unsure that the ongoing program could be stopped through action at the state level. The governor is unlikely to approve a bill blocking the federal project, according to Johnson.

In opposing the pilot project, Johnson and Gould cite two main concerns — potential loss of American jobs and road safety. Specifically, lawmakers fear American truckers would lose out to Mexican truckers, whom they say receive a much less pay. Also, they charge that Mexican trucking standards are not at par with American standards.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has rebutted the charges. Federal authorities also said the program would make trade with Mexico, currently the United States' third largest trading partner, more efficient, which in turn would benefit consumers.

Surface trade — that is, trade moved mostly by truck, rail and pipeline — with Canada and Mexico jumped 8.9 percent in 2006 compared to the year before, reaching $790 billion, federal data showed.

That year, surface trade with Mexico alone was valued at $272 billion, and 80 percent of that was moved by truck.

Arizona, which shares more than 300 miles of border with Mexico, has a lot of stake in trade relations with its southern neighbor. Trade between Arizona and Mexico in 2006 was valued at $10 billion, roughly the size of the state budget.

Except for the pilot program, a truck from Mexico is allowed to enter the U.S. and has to transfer its haul to a U.S. truck within 25 miles of the border. The U.S. truck then brings the goods farther into the country.

Federal authorities said Mexican truckers, in fact, have "a lot more to prove" up front to get into the pilot program. They are also not allowed to carry hazardous materials, supporters of the pilot program pointed out. A federal spokeswoman said many of the trucks inspected for the program are relatively new.

Mexican firms ‘prescreened'

"The first safety inspection on a U.S. trucker comes within the first 18 months of operation," said Melissa Delaney, spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Mexican firms that participate in the program, on the other hand, are "pre-screened" and undergo a much more stringent process than what American truckers have to go through, Delaney said.

A team of federal inspectors visits the companies' headquarters in Mexico before they are granted authority to go beyond the U.S. commercial zones. In addition, each vehicle has to display a Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance decal indicating it has passed a 39-point inspection. The decal, valid for only three months, is checked each time the truck crosses the border, she said.

The alliance is made up of state, provincial, and federal officials responsible for motor carrier safety laws in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Supporters also point out that the Mexican truckers have to get a U.S.-based insurance policy and drivers must be able to communicate in English, among other qualifications.

Satellite tracking

The FMCSA also announced Sept. 27 that all Mexican and American vehicles participating in the program will have to participate in a satellite-based tracking system under a plan being developed by Mexico and the U.S., which agreed in May to explore satellite technology as an enforcement tool for the program.

There are approximately 42 federal inspectors at the Arizona border. Of the 4.5 million border crossings in 2006, a total of 367,410 of them took place in Arizona.

That meant an inspector had to check more than 8,700 vehicles per year or roughly 24 trucks per day.

"Let me clarify some misconceptions," federal transportation Secretary Mary Peters told reporters during a breakfast forum in Glendale earlier this month. "There are no different standards. Every Mexican truck, every Mexican driver, every Mexican trucking company that participates in this program has to meet the exact the same requirements that every American trucking firm, every American trucker, and every vehicle has to meet."

But Johnson said: "How in the heck are they going to be inspecting all of these Mexican trucks?"

"It's the little guys that are totally going to get hurt. Their wages are going to be driven down," she added.

Peters said, in fact, there is a shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. In a 2005 report, the American Trucking Association estimated the shortage at 20,000.

"In the absence of substantial market adjustments, this driver shortfall — projected demand less projected supply — would rise to 111,000 in 2014," the report had said.

Johnson said she would focus on passing a resolution urging Congress to withdraw the U.S. from any further participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which calls for a broader access of U.S., Canadian and Mexican roads.

Under NAFTA, approved by Congress in 1993, Mexican trucks were to have gained greater access to U.S. roads by 2000. Canadian carriers have, on the other hand, been operating throughout the U.S. since 1982. The Clinton administration postponed the trade agreement's cross-border trucking provision, thereby continuing to limit Mexican trucks to commercial zones in Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico.

The Bush administration announced six years ago it would fully comply with NAFTA obligations on trucking access.

Johnson said she received an "ironclad guarantee" from House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-10, that he would see that the measure would get to the floor. Her resolution never reached the House floor for a vote this last session.

"U.S trucks have tons of different kinds of mandates on them. They have to be a certain size. They have to be safety inspected. The truck drivers have regulations they have to follow. They can only drive certain hours. And they can't drive more than that. They have to log books to keep. The Mexican drivers don't have any of these things," Johnson said, adding, "I am absolutely terrified at what is going to happen on our roads with these Mexican trucks."

Johnson has another concern. She fears a broader road access could mean a flooding of goods, destroying "any manufacturing base we have left in this country."

While a law at the state level may not be feasible, Johnson said she hopes the public would respond in the same way they did to a proposed immigration bill crafted by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. That bill went nowhere. She is also pinning her hopes on Congress to take action against the pilot program.

Early this month, the U.S. Senate approved a proposal prohibiting the U.S. Department of Transportation from spending money on the pilot program.

FMCSA Director John Hill called it a "sad victory for the politics of fear and protectionism."

Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Company.  All rights reserved.

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