WASHINGTON - The news that Mexican trucks will be allowed to haul freight deeper into the United States drew an angry reaction Friday from labor leaders, safety advocates and members of Congress.
They said Mexico has substandard trucks and low-paid drivers that will threaten national security, cost thousands of jobs and endanger motorists on the northern side of the Mexican border.
The Bush administration on Thursday announced its plan to have U.S. inspectors oversee Mexican trucking companies that carry cargo across the border.
"This program will make trade with Mexico easier and keep our roads safe at the same time," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Friday. She announced details of the plan to let 100 Mexican trucking companies travel beyond the border area while she was in El Paso, Texas, at the Bridge of the Americas, which connects to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa: "They are playing a game of Russian roulette on America's highways."
Access to all U.S. highways was promised by 2000 under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, as was access through Mexico for U.S. carriers.
That aspect of NAFTA was stalled by lawsuits and disagreements between the two countries, though Canadian and U.S. trucks travel freely across the northern border.
The Bush pilot project will let Mexican truck companies travel from Mexico throughout the United States and back. No hazardous material shipments will be permitted.
According to the Transportation Department, U.S. inspectors will inspect every truck and interview drivers to make sure they can read and speak English. They'll examine trucks and check the licenses, insurance and driving records of the Mexican drivers. Inspectors will also verify that the trucking companies are insured by U.S.-licensed firms.
The first Mexican trucks are expected to drive into the United States beyond the border area in about 60 days, the Transportation Department says.
National Transportation Safety Board' name=c1> SEARCHNews News Photos Images Web' name=c3> National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman questioned how the U.S. could spare sending inspectors to Mexico when only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. truck companies are inspected every year.
"They lack the inspectors to conduct safety reviews of at-risk domestic carriers," Hersman said. "That situation only gets worse if resources are diverted to the border."
One-fourth of all U.S. trucks are taken off the road after random inspections because they're so unsafe, she said. An even higher percentage of Mexican trucks are taken off the road at Texas border crossings, she said.
Mexican carriers insist their rigs meet U.S. standards. And according to the Transportation Department, 240 federal and 300 state government employees deal with Mexican truck issues.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said inspections will be meaningless because the trucks won't have black boxes that record how long a driver has been behind the wheel.
"They have no way of telling how many hours these truck drivers have been driving before they get to the U.S., let alone when they get here," Claybrook said.
Sen. Patty Murray (news, bio, voting record), D-Wash., chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, announced a March 8 hearing to determine whether the arrangement meets safety requirements.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (news, bio, voting record), D-Ore., chair of the House Highways subcommittee, said Congress will keep a close eye on the program.
Mexico responded to the U.S. announcement by saying it will allow trucks from 100 U.S. companies to travel across the border.
Business groups have wanted the border opened to avoid middleman costs of transferring goods from Mexican to U.S. trucks.
The American Trucking Associations said it supports the program, but wants to make sure that U.S. and Mexican truck companies are held to the same standards.
"We also are waiting to see that when US carriers are allowed to travel into Mexico that the regulatory and permitting process that U.S. carriers undergo is fair and transparent," the ATA said in a statement.