The news that Mexican trucks will be allowed to haul freight deeper into the United States drew an angry reaction yesterday from labor leaders, safety advocates and members of Congress.
They said Mexico has substandard trucks and low-paid drivers that will threaten national security, cost thousands of jobs and endanger motorists on the northern side of the Mexican border.
The Bush administration Thursday announced its plan to have U.S. inspectors oversee Mexican trucking companies that carry cargo across the border.
"This program will make trade with Mexico easier and keep our roads safe at the same time," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said yesterday. She announced details of the plan to let 100 Mexican trucking companies travel beyond the border area while she was in El Paso at the Bridge of the Americas, which connects to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Access to all U.S. highways was promised by the year 2000 under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, as was access through Mexico for U.S. carriers. That aspect of NAFTA was stalled by lawsuits and disagreements.
The Bush pilot project will allow Mexican truck companies to travel from Mexico throughout the United States and back. No hazardous material shipments will be permitted.
According to the Transportation Department, U.S. agents will inspect every truck and interview drivers to make sure they can read and speak English. They'll examine trucks and check the licenses, insurance and driving records of the Mexican drivers. Inspectors will also verify that the trucking companies are insured by U.S.-licensed firms.
The first Mexican trucks are expected to drive into the United States beyond the border area in about 60 days, the Transportation Department said.
"They are playing a game of Russian roulette on America's highways," said Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.
Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, questioned how the United States could spare sending inspectors to Mexico when only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. truck companies are inspected every year.
"They lack the inspectors to conduct safety reviews of at-risk domestic carriers," Hersman said.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said inspections will be meaningless because the trucks won't have black boxes that record how long a driver has been behind the wheel.
"They have no way of telling how many hours these truck drivers have been driving before they get to the U.S., let alone when they get here," Claybrook said.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, announced a March 8 hearing to determine whether the arrangement meets safety requirements.
Mexico responded to the U.S. announcement by saying it would allow trucks from 100 U.S. companies to travel across the border.
The American Trucking Association said it supported the program but wanted to make sure that U.S. and Mexican truck companies were held to the same standards.