There's a war being waged over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Mexican trucking industry is the pivotal battleground. The House of Representatives struck the latest blow near the end of June when it added a legislative rider to a DOT funding bill that would prevent Mexican trucks from gaining full access to the U.S. The bill passed by a margin of 285 to 143.
President Bush, who agreed to open the U.S. fully to Mexican trucks in January 2002, has vowed to veto that bill and others containing such restrictions. The debate now moves to the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats largely opposed to opening the border to Mexican truckers.
Allowing full access to the U.S. by Mexican fleets has been a hot-button issue ever since NAFTA came into being in 1993. The Teamsters, in particular, are concerned about what they see as low-paid Mexican truckers operating heavier, less-safe vehicles on U.S. roads.
According to the U.S. Customs Service, currently about 4-million truck border crossings occur between the U.S. and Mexico. That's up from 2.5 million in 1993. Since 1995, Mexican trucks have been limited to a 20-mile operating radius within four states Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California where they are allowed to drive into the U.S., drop off and pick up freight, and return to Mexico.
Those opposed to an open border between the U.S. and Mexico, such as the Teamsters and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group, claim that allowing Mexican truckers full access to U.S. highways is dangerous. For starters, they maintain that Mexican vehicles are not nearly as safe as their U.S. counterparts. Less than 1% of the Mexican trucks that cross the border are actually inspected, and of these, 35% are put out of service for safety reasons.
Mexican trucks are also substantially heavier than U.S. vehicles, where the weight limit is 80,000 lb. The six-axle semi-trailer, which comprises 37% of Mexican fleets, is permitted a gross weight of 106,900 lb. The five-axle semi-trailer, which makes up 35% of the fleet, is allowed a gross weight 97,000 lb.
Both groups also point to the pay disparity. On average, U.S. truck drivers are paid 28¢/mi., while the average Mexican trucker gets 6¢/mi.
Yet Martin Rojas, director of crossborder operations at ATA, says many of those safety concerns are blown out of proportion. He points out that if the border were fully opened, Mexican truckers would have to undergo safety audits to receive operating authority. In fact, FMCSA has made this process even more stringent than the one that U.S. and Canadian carriers are subjected to.
“Many believe that the proposed border opening for January 2002 means that we'll just wave a green flag at the border and let all these trucks cross at once. That's just not true,” says Rojas. “Mexican truckers have to go through an application process just like any U.S. carrier before they're allowed to operate on U.S. roads.”
Rojas also points out that the trucks being pulled over for inspections at the border are the ones inspectors are suspicious about in the first place. “The image of Mexican trucks as totally unsafe is blown out of proportion,” he says. “Look at all the NAFTA trading partners. Canada has a 17% out-of-service rate and the U.S., 24%. Are U.S. carriers forbidden to operate in Canada because their out-of-service rate is higher? Of course not.”
An issue that is often overlooked is how valuable Mexico has become to the U.S. in terms of trade. Mexico is now our second-largest bilateral trading partner, surpassing Japan. From 1993 to 2000, trade with Mexico increased from $81 billion to nearly $250 billion. And 80% of that trade was carried across the border by truck.
“Truckers on both sides of the border are in the business of carrying cargo, not in the business of getting into accidents,” Rojas says. “Trucking is a big piece of the NAFTA puzzle. We're trying to open the border more fully to ease congestion at current crossing sites. We need to make the flow of trade more efficient.”