SPECIAL REPORT: OIG says cross-border program still needs work

| 8/21/2007

Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007 – The most recent report card from the Office of Inspector General on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s implementation of cross-border trucking provisions isn’t exactly stellar.

OIG audits are required by the 2002 transportation appropriations legislation Section 350. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s OIG was charged with signing off on FMCSA’s compliance on eight provisions within Section 350 and updating its audits annually.

In the most recent follow-up audit released Aug. 21 on the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s cross-border trucking provisions, the OIG acknowledged the agency had made progress but the OIG did not sign off on two provisions required by Section 350 of the 2002 transportation appropriations legislation.

“We found continual improvement in the border safety program since our earlier reports dating back to 1998. FMCSA took the actions it agreed to take in response to the nine recommendations in our January 2005 report,” said Madeline M. Chulumovich, director of Congressional and public affairs with the OIG’s office.

“Despite the progress FMCSA has made, additional improvements are needed in two of the eight Section 350 (c) criteria. These involve improving the quality of the data used to monitor Mexican commercial driver traffic convictions in the United States and ensuring adequate capacity to inspect Mexican buses. FMCSA concurred with our recommendations and proposed responsive corrective actions.”

Data on Mexican drivers
While FMCSA officials may contend that Section 350 (c) 1 (g) relating to data on Mexican drivers has been signed off on by the OIG, several areas were highlighted as problematic in the newest audit.

The OIG follow-up audit focused extensively on the reporting of Mexican driver convictions to the 52nd State System. It contains records of traffic violations Mexican CDL holders commit in the U.S.

The 52nd State System was addressed in the 2005 audit conducted by the OIG. Since that audit, all states have ability to report to the system electronically except Oregon – which is in the process of getting online.

The current audit focused on the reporting of the four border states – Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Reporting to the system dropped off significantly after 2005, according to the audit.

As it turned out, New Mexico had incorrectly coded its data and failed to record any convictions after 2005. Texas had stopped providing conviction information to the database and had accumulated more than 40,000 convictions needing review by June of 2006.

Arizona officials had to sort through convictions by hand to identify specific violations and California officials were not being provided with the details of the violations in some instances.

The OIG audit states these problems have since been straightened out, but that FMCSA needs to have strong follow-up to make sure the states implement their corrective action plans.

The OIG recommended FMCSA develop a process to periodically identify and notify states of inconsistencies in the 52nd State System data and make sure the states take steps to correct the problems.

Another system used to track Mexican drivers is Mexico’s Licencia Federal Information System – LIFIS for short.

FMCSA reported to the OIG that LIFIS now contains 269,000 valid licenses, 140,000 expired licenses and 9,000 disqualified or restricted licenses. Through April 2006, U.S. federal and state law enforcement officials have accessed LIFIS 19,000 times.

The agency reported that 82 percent of the inquiries returned a valid CDL. Expired and restricted licenses came back in 2 percent of the inquiries.

However, 16 percent of the searches came back “driver not found.” FMCSA said this could have resulted from input errors on the inquiries.

Auditing the data was a problem for the OIG because the database is owned by the Mexican government.

“We could not determine whether the large percentage of queries to LIFIS that resulted in a response of ‘driver not found’ were due to data entry problems by U.S. users of the system, attempts by Mexican drivers to operate with invalid licenses, incompleteness of the Mexican database, or other unknown reasons,” the OIG audit states.

While these problems were highlighted in the audit, no action was ordered by the OIG.

Bus operations
When the OIG looked at bus operations, inspectors found facilities – specifically mentioning the bus inspection facility in Laredo, TX – as being short on both physical facilities and inspectors.

The OIG directed FMCSA to provide adequate inspector coverage during holidays or other periods of peak bus traffic, and to periodically determine the effectiveness of the bus inspection plan by surveying field personnel or through other methods.

More problems
The OIG pointed to two more areas of concern FMCSA needs to take steps to address, one of which is the OIG wants FMCSA to continue focusing on Mexican carrier drug and alcohol testing issues.

The audit notes that FMCSA met with U.S. and Mexican government officials to ensure that drug and alcohol testing issues are being addressed.

“However, a significant issues with specimen collection remains,” the audit states. “It is not clear as to whether the controls in place ensure that valid specimens are being collected before being sent to a certified laboratory. We found no evidence that collection site concerns have been resolved.”

The OIG office recommends that FMCSA develop and action plan to address these concerns.

Compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards was also addressed in the audit. FMCSA was directed to take steps to implement its policy ensuring Mexican motor carrier compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards.

Glimpse into the future?
While the follow-up audit only tackled compliance with eight provisions in Section 350, another more comprehensive audit is already underway at the OIG’s office.

That audit will review compliance with 22 more provisions of Section 350 as required by Section 6901 of the U. S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007.

While the OIG’s office has launched its review of the proposed cross-border program and its compliance with Section 350, it obviously has not been completed.

However, in the follow-up audit, the OIG did provide a parting shot at the proposed program.

The audit points out that FMCSA needs good screening mechanisms at the border, coordinated closely with the U.S. Customs and Border protection because of FMCSA’s assertion that “ … every truck that crosses the border as part of the pilot will be checked – every truck, every time.”

The audit points out that this could be problematic.

“Our observations at the Laredo crossing … confirmed the challenge FMCSA faces in screening project participants,” the audit states.

“Specifically, we observed hundreds of vehicles entering the United States at the Laredo crossing each day. FMCSA inspectors selected vehicles for inspection from the line of trucks waiting to cross the border. However, once an inspector selected a vehicle and diverted it for an inspection, no FMCSA personnel remained at the screening point to monitor carrier traffic.”

– By Jami Jones, senior editor