With a one-year pilot program that will allow Mexican trucks to travel north beyond a 20-mile border zone slated to begin soon, many questions remain unanswered about the effect of such a move, as well as how the program itself will operate. Indeed, some in Congress question whether the program is part of a “back office” agreement designed to escape public scrutiny.
Those close to the issue note that White House officials in February told DOT officials at the “last minute” to get the ball rolling on a pilot program, leaving FMCSA scrambling to institute a transborder plan. Some FMCSA officials said they did not have the necessary time to present a well thought out program or coordinate it with Mexican officials, who, as of presstime, do not have a reciprocal plan to allow U.S. carriers into that country.
According to the proposal, about 100 Mexican trucking firms will be chosen from some 500 applicants and given authority to travel unrestricted within the U.S. They will be allowed to deliver international freight to and from Mexico but will not be permitted to haul domestic goods within the U.S. About a thousand trucks will be part of the program, which will exclude hazmat vehicles and buses. By mid-March, FMCSA officials had not visited any Mexican carriers.
Trucks traveling north will receive a CVSA sticker if they pass inspection, according to executive director Stephen Campbell. “Are we ready? Absolutely,” he says. However, Campbell has some reservations about the program and adds that neither FMCSA nor the White House asked CVSA for any input. “We're concerned about the ability of the Mexican authorities to do drug and alcohol testing on a par with that done in the U.S… Their standards are not as scrutinized as ours and there is some question about the chain of custody being properly addressed.” Campbell does not foresee any issues with the mechanical safety of Mexican trucks, but expressed concern about verifying how long a Mexican driver was in the seat prior to hitting the border.
The DOT Inspector General also has reservations about the so-called “52nd State System,” a database that houses driver convictions so that U.S. law enforcement officers in the field can check on the status of Mexican drivers, whose trucks will be designated with an “X” after their DOT number. The IG noted that border states in particular have been lax in their reporting. “Data that Texas reported … showed a dramatic decline in the number of traffic convictions for Mexican-licensed drivers from January through May 2006,” the IG said. When the IG notified FMCSA, it learned that as of July 2006 Texas has stopped providing conviction reports to the database, leading to a backlog of 40,000 Mexican commercial driver's license tickets, which was subsequently fixed. Similar problems arose in New Mexico, California and Arizona.
At Senate hearings in March, several lawmakers expressed concern that DOT's hastily contrived plan was moving ahead without proper oversight or coordination with Mexican authorities. Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Patty Murray was vexed by the non-show of the Transportation Undersecretary of Mexico. “The Mexican Government has now decided that his appearance would not be appropriate.”
She and others have reservations about the pilot program because it seems to be a done deal. “I received a copy of the official Record of Discussion…initialed by both Mexican and U.S. authorities. It spells out broad parameters of the anticipated pilot project. And there's one very revealing section, which makes it crystal clear that the new agreement anticipates that after one full year cross-border trucking without any restrictions will commence.
“If the purpose of the pilot project is to determine if we can do this safely, why is the result already agreed to by both governments? Again, it leaves me to wonder if the demonstration project is more ‘show’ than scrutiny.” DOT Sec. Mary Peters denied this allegation during her testimony.
Others have showed concern over the lack of details as well. “FMCSA has been stonewalling us by not supplying the information on this program [in response to a Freedom of Information Act request],” said Jackie Gillan, vp of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We've been forced to sue because the agency has been trying to keep this material out of the public domain.”