Gates are up

Opposition to the Dept. of Transportation's one-year pilot project allowing Mexican drivers access to all parts of the United States is growing in Congress and elsewhere as the first trucks from both countries have been approved by DOT to cross the border. The first Mexican carrier, Transportes Olympic Apodaca, based in Nuevo Len, has already carried a load of steel into North Carolina, and the first

Opposition to the Dept. of Transportation's one-year pilot project allowing Mexican drivers access to all parts of the United States is growing in Congress and elsewhere as the first trucks from both countries have been approved by DOT to cross the border.

The first Mexican carrier, Transportes Olympic Apodaca, based in Nuevo LeÛn, has already carried a load of steel into North Carolina, and the first U.S. carrier, Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution of El Paso, TX, took the first trip into Mexico carrying plastic resin.

One of the most vocal opponents of the plan is the Teamsters, who view the open-border plan as a long-term strategy for carriers to replace U.S. drivers with lower-paid Mexican drivers. The union's most publicly ardent argument, however, is based on safety claiming that Mexican drivers are not held to the same stringent regulations as those of US carriers.

“Drug testing is questionable; in fact, there are no certified drug testing facilities in the entire country. And, due to lax wage and hour laws, drivers can be forced to make lengthy deliveries,” said Teamsters General President James Hoffa. “Records of Mexican truckers' traffic convictions are poor, so citations may or may not be available to U.S. police. Checks of the validity of Mexican commercial driver's licenses against Mexico's database result in a failure rate of nearly 20% — one in five licenses that are invalid or simply not listed.”

According to many safety officials, including the CVSA, mechanical safety of the trucks themselves won't be an issue if every truck is inspected. What is uncertain is whether or not FMCSA has a workable plan to do so. DOT's Inspector General has expressed concern, saying in its September 6 report: “FMCSA has not developed and implemented complete, coordinated plans for checking trucks and drivers participating in the demonstration project as they cross the border. Without having site-specific plans in place and fully coordinated with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the states, the Department's commitment to check every demonstration project truck every time it crosses the border into the United States is at risk.”

In a related event, a CBP internal memo recently made public had formalized a long-standing verbal policy that during 30 to 40 minutes of wait time at the El Paso border crossing, inspectors should query the driver of cars only at the request of supervisors, which meant the documents of only one driver in five were examined. Customs spokespeople say this rule only applies to passenger cars, but several inspectors claim that commercial trucks were waved through as well.

Congressional opposition is mounting. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced an amendment to a transportation appropriations bill that would cut off funds for implementing the program. Similar bills are in the House of Representatives, where Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar and Representative Peter DeFazio both criticized the pilot program. What many lawmakers object to is the ‘last minute’ way in which the plan was implemented. “They didn't even wait for the ink to dry, much less read the [OIG] report or consider the questions it raised,” said Dorgan.

The fight is fierce because the economic stakes are high. The opening of the border to truck carriers dovetails with the nascent but growing trend among U.S. farmers to buy or rent land in Mexico to grow crops. By opening operations in Mexico, U.S. growers no longer risk running afoul of US immigration laws because they are using Mexican workers in Mexico and using lower paid Mexican drivers to bring their crops to the U.S. In addition, Mexico is enjoying a boom in “near-shoring,” a practice in which foreign-based manufacturers are building facilities in Mexico to be near the large U.S. consumer market. Without the added expense of ocean shipping, and aided by lower-paid Mexican truckers, the open border has these manufacturers salivating as well.

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