SPECIAL REPORT: Cross-border plan sets off reactions in DC

| 2/23/2007

Friday, Feb. 23, 2007 - The Department of Transportation's plan to provide 100 Mexico-based trucking companies open access to U.S. highways nationwide drew intense reactions today from some lawmakers in both the U.S. Senate and House. Already, at least one hearing date is on the Hill calendar.

No sooner than the announcement hit the newswire, snaked down K Street and telegraphed around Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, said she would convene a hearing on March 8.

Murray said her intent is to investigate whether the Bush administration has fulfilled both "the spirit and the letter of the law." If there is a hole in the plan, Murray should recognize it. As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, she has a long history with cross-border trucking issues, up close and personal.

When the Bush administration first proposed opening the border to long-haul Mexican trucks without adequate safety standards, the Republican House voted to prohibit cross-border trucking outright. When the Bush administration threatened to veto that prohibition in the summer of 2001, Murray authored a bipartisan compromise requiring dozens of new safety requirements to ensure that cross-border trucking would not pose a risk to the American public.

The language, written by Murray and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, for the 2002 transportation appropriations bill, was essentially the "to-do list" that has provided sensible guidance for the U.S. DOT.

The Murray-Shelby language prohibited the DOT from granting operating authority until a number of safety and compliance measures were put in place. These measures included adequate border staffing, inspection facilities, the ability to check the validity of Mexican driver's licenses, vehicle registration, and to verify insurance.

Oberstar and DeFazio wade in

The leadership of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure waded into the fray on Friday, shortly after Secretary Peters announced the DOT's plan.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-MN, and Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-ID, both were quick to voice concerns over the DOT's action. Oberstar is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and DeFazio is chairman of that committee's Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

"It is impossible to know how many hours or days a driver has been behind the wheel of a truck in Mexico, without rest, prior to crossing the border and entering our highways. Anecdotal evidence from news reports suggests that working hours for truck drivers in Mexico go far beyond anyone's estimate of a safe, reasonable limit," Oberstar said.

"Drug and alcohol testing is another essential element. Without oversight and established controls at collection sites, compliance is very difficult to gauge.

DeFazio had similar concerns.

"Despite the recent agreement to allow U.S. truck safety inspectors into Mexico to conduct safety audits, I am dubious that Mexican trucks or their drivers will meet the same safety and environmental standards as those in the U.S.," DeFazio said.

"Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. has consistently compromised its environmental and labor standards. Now we're being asked to risk the safety of citizens on highways and in communities where these trucks will travel. You can be sure Congress will be keeping a close eye on the implementation of this pilot program."

- By Sandi Soendker, managing editor