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NEWS - Mexican trucks to haul on U.S. roads

Mexican trucks to haul on U.S. roads announced last month by the Department of Transportation
Source: USA Today

The ambitious but controversial North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico from the 1990s is back, this time as the backdrop to a contentious new cross-border deal allowing Mexican freight trucks onto U.S. highways.

The agreement, announced last month by the Department of Transportation, is being assailed by critics as a possibly illegal undertaking that will take jobs from U.S. truckers and money from U.S. taxpayers. It is opposed by the United States' largest transportation union, the Teamsters, by a national association of independent truckers and by some federal lawmakers from both parties.

"We think it's unsafe, unfair and wrong for America," said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. "It's a danger to highway safety. ... It will cost thousands of trucking and warehouse jobs."

He says the agreement is "probably illegal" because it goes beyond the scope of an earlier cross-border trucking pilot program that Congress killed in 2009.

Critics such as Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., argue that Mexico's trucking industry is far less regulated and monitored than America's and that the deal opens the way for Mexican narco-traffickers to gain a foothold on U.S. roads. They're not convinced by assurances that Mexican trucks and drivers will be carefully inspected and monitored by authorities.

"It takes $50 and a fake gold watch to get out of a speeding ticket in Tijuana," Hunter said. "This is a place where, if you think slapping a sticker on a windshield is going to stop the narco-traffickers down there from using that truck, I would say the (federal transportation) guys are extremely naïve."

Supporters hail the agreement as an end to tariffs that have cost U.S. companies more than $2 billion. They say it will create thousands of jobs and spur trade between the two nations. Supporters include top transportation officials, the nation's largest trucking industry trade association, businesses that export to Mexico and the Chamber of Commerce.

"If we're going to boost U.S. exports and create jobs here at home, we must hold on to our major export markets, such as Mexico, where American companies are already doing well," said Chamber President Thomas Donohue.

Patrick Kilbride, the Chamber's senior director for the Americas, could not provide specifics on how jobs will be created. But he says that in many cases, as U.S. companies cut back on trade with Mexico because of the tariffs, Canadian companies filled the void. "Twenty-two states count Mexico as their No. 1 or No. 2 export market," he says.

Several trucking officials say there won't be any immediate impact from the agreement. "Even if you implemented NAFTA trucking tomorrow, nothing's going to change (immediately)," says Martin Rojas, vice president for security and operations at the American Trucking Associations, which represents more than 37,000 members, including other trucking groups, industry-related associations and 50 affiliated state trucking associations.

Dave Akers, vice president of C.R. England, a Salt Lake City-based transporter and the world's largest refrigerated carrier, agrees: "This isn't a scenario of 'The Mexicans are coming, the Mexicans are coming,"' he said.

Mexican carriers wishing to participate in the program must apply to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which will approve each driver and vehicle used, says FMCSA administrator Anne Ferro.

The agency will rigorously review each participating driver's record, including all violations cited in the USA or Mexico, and thoroughly inspect each participating truck for safety, she says.

Ferro said Mexican truckers will have to comply with U.S. restrictions that limit how many hours drivers can spend behind the wheel daily, including hours driven before they reach the border. "The United States is obligated under NAFTA to lift geographic limitations on trucking. We fully comply with every aspect of the law," she said.

But many U.S. truckers, especially small independent ones, see the agreement as a David-vs.-Goliath battle that gives Mexican truckers a huge edge. "It's the race to the bottom," says trucker Scott Grenerth of Arlington, Ohio. "Shippers will say, 'Oh, you'll do it for less? Well, we're going to hire you.' That happens all the time in this industry."

One aspect of the new program that has come under particularly sharp attack is a plan to install electronic on-board recorders — similar to a commercial passenger jet's black box or flight-data recorder — on each Mexican truck that participates.

The recorders will track truckers' movements within the States, preventing them from illegally shipping freight from one city to another. NAFTA rules allow Mexican truckers to deliver only to one destination, then pick up a load from that destination or return to Mexico without a load.

The recorders will detect Mexican truckers who drive more hours in one day than U.S. rules allow.

The recorders are being purchased by the Department of Transportation, a fact opponents criticize. "It is outrageous that U.S. truckers, through the federal fuel tax, will subsidize the cost of doing business for these Mexican carriers," DeFazio wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In an interview, he questions the wisdom of spending "thousands of dollars" for the recorders in difficult economic times.

Ferro said federal authorities can't require Mexican carriers to buy the recorders because they don't require them for U.S. truckers. She said that by controlling the recorders, transportation officials will have access to the data they collect.

The recorders cost about $2,500 each, plus operating costs, Ferro says. "Overall, we've budgeted $2.4 million, $750,000 per year for three years, to cover the cost of on-board recorders."

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