White House, congressional negotiators agree on plan to open U.S. roads to Mexican trucks


By Suzanne Gamboa
Associated Press, and the Nando Times
November 28, 2001

WASHINGTON (November 28, 2001 09:35 p.m. EST - The White House and congressional negotiators have agreed on a plan to open more American highways to Mexican trucks, but also to require more safety checks on the vehicles.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, on Wednesday announced the deal reached by House and Senate negotiators and the Bush administration. The issue had been a sticking point as the House and Senate negotiators try to reach agreement on a transportation spending bill.

"This is a victory for safety, for trade and for both our countries," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a lead negotiator on the issue. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., also participated in negotiations.

The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada called for allowing Mexican trucks to travel throughout the United States by Jan. 1, 2000. But opposition from unions and safety groups kept that from happening. Currently, trucks from Mexico are restricted to a commercial zone along the border.

Bush has pledged to uphold the NAFTA provision, and Mexican President Vicente Fox has said it is key to U.S.-Mexico relations.

But opponents in Congress cited safety concerns and threw up a roadblock last summer.

The House passed an outright ban on Mexican trucks in June, while the Senate in August passed a measure calling for strict safety regulations and more truck inspectors at the border. Bush opposed both bills and threatened to veto the transportation spending bill if the final version delayed opening more roads.

"With the veto threat out there we knew we had to make some revisions and that's what we did," Webster said.

Gramm and McCain had vowed to filibuster any measure that the White House opposed.

The senators said the agreement will "allow the border to open in a timely manner, consistent with our obligations under NAFTA, while protecting the safety of the American traveling public."

The agreement also got the endorsement of Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., who attached the amendment banning the Mexican trucks to the transportation bill.

About 36 percent of Mexican trucks inspected last year were taken out of service, compared to about 25 percent of U.S. trucks.

Those who have favored opening more U.S. highways to the trucks say the failure rates are based on vehicles that operate only in the commercial border zone. They say carriers will use safer and better trucks for longer trips.

The Bush administration's plan would have permitted Mexican companies that said they were in compliance with U.S. safety standards to operate in the country for 18 months while their claims were verified.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, several groups said that policy seemed foolhardy in light of heightened border security.

Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the truck drivers' Teamsters union, declined comment because he had not seen the agreement. A spokesman for the Americans Trucking Associations could not be reached for comment.

Among some of the details of the agreement:

- The Department of Transportation will conduct onsite inspections of half of all Mexican carriers wanting to operate their fleets in the United States. A Senate-passed measure called for inspecting all carriers.

- DOT must verify the operators' license of all Mexican truck drivers carrying high-risk cargo and verify licenses of at least half of all other Mexican truck drivers crossing the border.

- Scales and weigh-in-motion equipment will be immediately placed at five border ports of entry and five more within a year. The Senate measure called for putting that equipment at every border point.

- Trucks can cross border only at crossings staffed with inspectors and where safety inspections can be done.


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