By year's end, the Dept. of Transportation will present a plan for a one-year pilot program that will allow Mexican trucks to travel beyond the current 20-mile commercial zone north of the border.
According to a spokesperson for Acting Transportation Secretary Mary Cino, the test could involve about 100 Mexican carriers. Those close to the issue suggest that the pilot program may include provisions about minimum English language skills for Mexican drivers, comparable safety inspection standards, medical examinations and hazmat rules.
Although the NAFTA agreements were signed into law in 1992, their implementation has been thwarted by lawsuits and other legal proceedings from opponents such as the Teamsters, which contends that Mexican trucks are unsafe and drivers poorly trained. Public Citizen fought NAFTA on environmental grounds, arguing that increasing the flow of Mexican trucks across the border would damage U.S. food safety and consumer product standards and undermine environmental regulations on hazardous substances.
One of the most vocal opponents to NAFTA has been the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Assn. (OOIDA), which contends that competition from Mexican carriers will eventually overwhelm U.S. fleets because Mexican drivers are paid 25% to 50% less than most domestic drivers. “Not one state enforces the directives established by Congress in 2001 regarding Mexican carriers,” OOIDA exec. vp Todd Spencer told the Trade Commission.
In 2002, Transportation Appropriations legislation mandated criteria for Mexican and U.S. governments to establish before opening U.S. roads to Mexican trucks. DOT officials say that any pilot program will comply with all laws enacted by Congress.
Teamsters officials say that it's not a leap to envision Mexican trucks delivering goods to U.S. cities and backhauling goods to Mexico with drivers earning much less than their U.S. counterparts. “U.S. carriers may see this as an answer to the driver shortage,” said a Teamsters' official. “But this will only exacerbate the driver shortage as more U.S. drivers leave the business because they can not compete with lower paid foreign workers.”
More disturbing is the somewhat bizarre rhetoric that has recently surfaced around the issue. News reports and Op-Ed pieces warn of a “NAFTA Superhighway” that threatens to cut the U.S. in half, bring Mexican crime north and produce one borderless North American country. The supposed superhighway will be kicked off by the Trans-Texas Corridor and push north as a 10- or 12-lane highway from the Mexican port of Lazaro Cardenas, across the U.S. border to Canada. Along the way, trucks would stop and their cargo could fan out.
As evidence, people point to the “North America's SuperCorridor Coalition,” a tri-national group formed in 1994 as the “I-35 Corridor Coalition,” which includes state and local governments, as well as private entities such as Yellow Roadway and Lockheed Martin. The organization has been forced to deny stories that it's building a NAFTA Superhighway and says it only encourages infrastructure improvements of I-35, -29, -94 and other highways that, when strung together, look to some like a NAFTA Superhighway backbone.
Also bolstering the NAFTA Superhighway argument is the growing trend of “nearshoring” or “nearsourcing” by multinational manufacturers who are building factories in Mexico to be closer to the purchasing power of North American consumers. With NAFTA entree, automotive, electronic and other products from Mexico could be produced for the U.S. and Canadian market, as well as the increasingly prosperous Mexican consumer, without the added expense of ocean shipping.