Cindy Skrzycki's The Regulators

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The vision of Mexican 18-wheelers trucking goods across the United States, has, well, run out of gas. Hit the brakes. Broken down.

At least some safety advocates hope so.

The Senate is close to passing a catch-all spending bill that would seal the U.S. border to Mexican long-haul trucks, ending a 15-year project whose goal was to let U.S. and Mexican trucks carry products from Albany to Acapulco.

Barring a last-minute reprieve, the cross-border trucking project will be killed by a provision entombed in the $410 billion legislation that the Senate began debating yesterday. The project, inspired by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, was intended to ease the flow of the $230 billion in U.S.-Mexico trade carried by trucks, while deepening the relationship between the two neighbors.

Instead of orderly trade, the trucking pilot program the Bush administration has run for the last two years has caused rancor within the domestic trucking industry, shouting matches between federal regulators and congressional overseers, and bad feelings about the failed promise of NAFTA.

The objections have been mostly about safety and economics. Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, said the project ignored "serious safety deficiencies" among Mexican trucks. A U.S. trucker group complained that a full-blown program would reduce wages. Ultimately, few trucking companies on either side of the border signed up to participate.

Still, the initiative survived previous Democratic efforts to kill it, thanks to President George W. Bush's steadfast support and the inability of opponents to write air-tight legislation.

Under NAFTA, Mexican trucking companies were promised authority to operate in U.S. markets beyond a circumscribed "commercial zone" where they had to drop their loads on the U.S. side of the border to be picked up by domestic carriers. The Transportation Department has spent at least $500 million on the project.

Since 2007, participation in the program has been poor because its political fate has been questionable. Only 27 Mexico-based companies and 104 trucks are registered to operate in the program, a participation rate that critics have said is too small to determine if cross-border trucking would be safe.

The American Trucking Association, a trade group in Washington representing big American carriers, supported the demonstration program.

"For us, it was bringing a more fluid movement of goods over the border," said Martin Rojas, executive director of the group's safety and security operations. "Clearly, a lot of manufacturing companies have been interested in finding a better way to get their cargo across the border."

Another group of truckers, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, in Grain Valley, Mo., fought it all the way to federal court. Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the 160,000-member group, said shippers would be able to "tap into a driver pool that would be paid even less." Spencer said domestic drivers "shouldn't be in a situation where competitors are less experienced than they are and held to a lower standard."

The issue came to a head when the Bush administration, on Sept. 7, 2007, let the first authorized Mexican carrier, Transportes Olympic, drive goods into the U.S. interior. A week later, the first U.S.-based carrier, Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution, hauled goods into Mexico.

The same year, some Democrats in Congress tried to cut off funding to establish a Mexican long-haul trucking program. An amendment inserted into the 2008 appropriations bill by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said funds couldn't be used "to establish a cross-border program."

The Bush administration swerved around that obstacle by determining that the provision didn't apply because its program already had been established.

This year, the House voted to kill it again, over the objections of business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

This time, the bill has five verbs, not just one, to make it clear that no money can be spent on the plan: "None of the funds appropriated may be used, directly or indirectly, to establish, implement, continue, promote, or in any way permit a cross-border motor carrier demonstration program to allow Mexican-domiciled motor carriers to operate beyond the commercial zones along the international border between the United States and Mexico."

Dorgan said he hopes the provision leaves no wiggle room this time. He probably doesn't have much to worry about.

Even though the Obama administration said it had no comment on the future of the pilot program, a Democratic Congress is working with a new secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood, who opposed the program as long ago as 1999, and a labor movement that is back in the political driver's seat.

Then there are two former senators who voted for the 2007 legislation to cut the program: President Obama and Vice President Biden.

"Hopefully, this will terminate it once and for all," Gillan said.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached at

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