Two bills would bar Mexican trucks until they are safe

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is supporting legislation currently moving through both the U.S. Senate and House targeting truck safety under NAFTA.

House Resolution 152, introduced May 24 by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) and Rep. Jack Quinn (R-NY), would delay granting Mexican trucks authority to operate in the U.S. under NAFTA until a prescribed comprehensive plan to ensure their safety is in place. Thirty-one additional lawmakers are listed as original co-sponsors of the Oberstar resolution.

Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-ND) bill, introduced May 25, would halt cross-border operations until the Mexican trucks can meet safety standards. SB965 is co-sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV).

“Only about 1 percent of Mexican trucks entering the United States are inspected by the United States at the border, but 36 percent of those that are inspected are turned back for serious safety violations,” Sen. Dorgan says. “Mexico does not have the same safety standards we have in the United States,” he said as he introduced the bill. “There are no minimum safety standards for trucks or equipment, no limit on the hours a driver can stay on the road, no drug testing. These trucks will put people on America’s highways at serious risk. The American people don’t want to drive down the highway and find they are alongside a severely overloaded truck with someone in the driver seat who may have been on the road for 20 hours or more.”

Dorgan said ample evidence from California, Nevada and other states documents a significant number of Mexican trucks are regularly turned back at the U.S.-Mexico border for serious safety violations, even under the current rules.

“Every day, every hour, these unsafe trucks are coming across our border, and that will only increase if the Administration plans are allowed to go forward,” he said. Even the Department of Transportation acknowledges its enforcement program, which is seriously under-staffed, cannot assure the safety of Mexican trucks entering the United States.

“The serious shortcomings of trucks from Mexico is a problem that too many lawmakers are ignoring,” said OOIDA President Jim Johnston. “There is a great deal of opposition and concern among many people across the country for the current plan to open the border at the end of this year without appropriate safety measures in place.”

OOIDA maintains that, while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed several rules it claims will allow verification of Mexican carrier compliance with U.S. safety rules, the proposals only touch upon a fraction of the issues raised by the opening of the border. OOIDA points out other issues that will demand increased government supervision will be in the areas of Customs and Immigration, and compliance with all federal and state licensing, registration, permitting, environmental and user fee and tax requirements as every U.S. truck is required to do. Also left unanswered is how to process a Mexican truck or driver in violation of NAFTA trade rules or our safety standards.

“American truckdrivers must comply with enormous numbers of safety rules and regulations to operate legally on our highways,” OOIDA’s Johnston says. “These include a stringent physical examination and drug and alcohol testing of drivers, truck weight limits, and hours-of-service rules. Mexico does not impose the same rules on their trucks and drivers. It makes no sense, is reckless, and is completely unfair to create exceptions to these rules for Mexican carriers. That’s what we will be effectively doing if we open the border before Mexico imposes equivalent rules and we are prepared to ensure their carrier’s compliance with them.”

Congress fact-finding committee visits U.S.-Mexico border inspection stations
by René Tankersley, feature editor

Four members of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit recently visited border inspection stations in San Diego, CA, and Laredo, TX, as part of a fact-finding venture to determine the safety of Mexican trucks crossing into the United States.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI), ranking minority member Rep. Robert A. Borski (D-PA), Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) and Rep. Tim Holden (D-PA) toured the border inspection stations May 19-20.

Land Line talked with Reps. Petri and Borski about what they saw and how it affected their outlook on the possible opening of the U.S.-Mexico border. Both Petri and Borski seemed thoroughly impressed with California’s state-owned inspection station at the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. The state-operated station inspects trucks and truckdrivers for safety and compliance with state motor vehicle laws.

“California’s very comprehensive truck inspection program applies to all trucks, Mexican and American,” Petri said. “Trucks must have an inspection sticker, which is renewed every three months at the border station. If inspectors find problems with the equipment, the drivers either fix the problem there or receive an order, and sometimes a fine, to fix the problem and be re-inspected on their next trip to the border station.”

Borski agreed, and added that the out-of-service rate at the California station is average. “California’s inspection station has about a 25 percent out-of-service rate for trucks from Mexico, which is similar to the rate for U.S. trucks,” Borski said.

The party of four also visited the federal border inspection station in San Diego. Here federal inspectors examine trucks for contraband, both illegal aliens and drugs, using their new laser x-ray machines to x-ray the entire truck.

The federal government has about 15 contraband stations in Laredo due to the larger volume of goods coming through this border by truck and rail. The congressional party visited Laredo’s newest facility, which inspects and x-rays boxcars and trailer piggyback units.

With the overwhelming workload at the U.S. Customs contraband stations, Borski is concerned with how opening the border will affect the officials there. “Government officials working down there are overwhelmed already,” Borski said.

Texas does not have a state facility at the border crossing to inspect trucks for compliance with Texas motor carrier laws.

“Texas’ inspection system is virtually nonexistent,” Borski said. “Trucks pour over the border there. They may be safe and may be not.”

“Texas has no infrastructure to look at trucks,” he added. “During our visit, we were shown two parking spaces for inspecting trucks two at a time with 4,000 trucks per day at that crossing. The out-of-service rate was staggering. Texas Department of Public Safety Major Coy Clanton told us if they looked at seven or eight trucks, they would take five out of service for significant safety violations. I think the key is that a truck that isn’t inspected will be neglected. I think that’s the biggest danger.”

Petri believes the Bush administration has planned for the needed improvements to the truck inspection system.

“President Bush in his budget provided for $100 million to improve inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Petri said. “We think they’re in the process of replicating California’s inspection station in Texas. It will be like anything else. If people know, the word goes out loud and clear that they are going to be inspected, or going to be fined or sent back, they’ll get their equipment up to standard very quickly.”

Borski agreed the California system should be replicated, but is concerned with the length of time it would take to build such a facility.

“They should set up a system like California’s facility, or we shouldn’t open the border,” Borski said. “It will take at least 18 months to build an inspection station.”

“In California the border is narrow, but in Texas there’s maybe 15 crossings with virtually no inspection,” Borski explained. “I don’t think the border should be open in Texas any farther than that 20-mile radius until we get a better inspection system.”

Borski and 30 other representatives are co-sponsoring a resolution to urge the president not to open the border until safety inspection concerns are adequately addressed. “You can be for NAFTA and still insist on trucks being inspected,” Borski said. “It’s a safety question, not a trade question.”

Official NAFTA plan nearing completion:
Democratic senators ask Bush to hold off on Mexican trucks

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says the official North American Free Trade Agreement implementation plan is now nearing completion. FMCSA spokesman David Longo expects it to be available in mid-June. Meanwhile, more Washington lawmakers are voicing concerns about cross-border trucking. Fearing a compromise of safe roads, 10 Democratic senators have made the latest news, asking that the plan to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways be reconsidered.

In a letter sent June 11, the senators assured the president they are supporters of NAFTA, but said that granting access to U.S. roads could “seriously jeopardize highway safety, road conditions and environmental quality.”

A NAFTA arbitration panel ruled in February that the United States was violating the treaty by not opening the border per provisions of the treaty, and the Bush administration launched a plan to comply. The Bush administration and transportation officials currently are establishing rules for cross-border trucking and want them finished in time to let the trucks operate in the United States before the end of the year. The public has until July 2 to comment on the proposal that would require all Mexican trucks to apply for permission to operate in the United States. A safety audit would be conducted within 18 months, but the senators are concerned about the interim.

The letter was signed by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Max Baucus (D-MT), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Tom Daschle (D-SD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL).