Commentary

Attempt to Limit Mexican Trucking in U.S. Masks Union Agenda

Mexican truck drivers have been unfairly denied access to U.S. highways for more than a decade by a wall of prejudice.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to allow qualified American and Mexican truckers to make deliveries across the border, but opponents have exploited safety fears to block implementation. The delay in meeting our commitments has cost Americans hundreds of millions of dollars each year from higher transportation costs and tarnished the U.S. government’s reputation as an honest and reliable neighbor.

According to Annex I of NAFTA, licensed and qualified Mexican trucks were to be allowed to make deliveries in U.S. border states by 1995, a year after the agreement went into effect, and throughout the U.S. by 2000. U.S. trucking firms were to be granted the same access to Mexico. But under pressure from the Teamsters union, President Clinton unilaterally suspended implementation of the provisions in 1995, citing safety concerns.

In 1998, Mexico initiated a complaint against the U.S. under NAFTA’s dispute settlement procedures, claiming that the U.S. government had violated its commitment to treat Mexican trucking firms in a nondiscriminatory manner. In 2001, a NAFTA panel unanimously agreed that the U.S. government had violated its commitments under the agreement. The panel ruled not that the U.S. government needed to open its market to all Mexican trucks but that it must consider qualified applications case by case, rather than assuming all Mexican trucks and their drivers were by definition unsafe.

Following the NAFTA panel ruling, Congress stipulated 22 safety requirements that must be met before Mexican trucks could be allowed beyond “commercial zones” near the border. In 2002, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta certified that the department had met all 22 requirements, but before any licenses could be issued, environmental and labor activists opposed to NAFTA stopped implementation in court. Their complaint that the new trucking regulations violated federal environmental laws was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003, but the stay was struck down by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision in 2004.

With the green light to implement the NAFTA trucking provisions, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been working with Mexican authorities to develop a pilot program to allow licensed Mexican trucks to serve destinations within the United States. The Department of Transportation has approved 55 Mexican trucks to enter the U.S. market, and Mexican authorities have approved a similar number of U.S. trucks to make deliveries in Mexico.

The final obstacle in the road to implementing the trucking provision fully is the Democratic Congress. Bending to pressure from anti-trade constituencies, both the House and the Senate passed an amendment to the transportation appropriations bill this year that would cut off all funds to implement the pilot program. Because the bill is awaiting fi nal passage and may need to overcome a potential presidential veto, the administration has moved ahead with the pilot program.

Every week of delay is a drag on U.S.-Mexican trade and an embarrassment to the U.S. With the ban in place, trucks approaching the border are required to unload their cargo into warehouses in so-called commercial zones within 25 miles of the border, only to have them reloaded onto short-haul vehicles and then onto domestic trucks for final delivery.

This inefficient system causes delays, increased pollution and added costs at busy border crossings such as Calexico East; San Ysidro; Nogales, Ariz.; and Laredo, Texas. Because 80 percent of U.S. trade with Mexico travels by truck, the ban on cross-border trucking imposes an additional $200 million to $400 million in transportation costs, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Safety concerns are only a smokescreen to hide opponents’ real agenda. Under NAFTA, U.S. authorities remain free to impose the same or higher safety standards on Mexican trucks and drivers that enter the United States than the standards imposed on American-owned trucks and drivers. Since NAFTA passed, the U.S. government has spent $500 million to improve border inspection stations and has added 600 new truck inspectors in anticipation of implementing the agreement’s cross-border trucking provisions.

Mexican trucks have not posed a discernible hazard on American roads in the past. U.S. highways were open to Mexican trucks before 1982, when the Reagan administration barred new entrants in retaliation for the Mexican government’s refusal to allow U.S. trucks reciprocal access. Reagan’s order allowed 800 Mexican trucks that had access to the U.S. market to continue operating.

A recent survey by the Arizona Republic newspaper found that those Mexican trucks allowed to operate in the U.S. have a superior safety record compared with U.S.-owned trucks. Since 2003, 1.2 percent of Mexican truck drivers operating on U.S. roads have been found to be out of compliance, compared with 7 percent of American drivers. Of Mexican trucks stopped for inspection, 21 percent are ordered out of service, compared with 23 percent of U.S. vehicles that are stopped.

Although the Teamsters talk about safety, their real agenda is not to promote safer roads but to protect themselves from increased competition. The real agenda of their congressional allies is to thwart full implementation of a successful trade agreement with Mexico, our third-largest trading partner. The real objection they have to Mexican trucks making deliveries to U.S. cities is not that they are unsafe but that those trucks are driven by Mexicans. In the eyes of congressional leaders, “driving while Mexican” remains an unacceptable public hazard.

To promote more-efficient trade and better relations with our Mexican neighbors, President Bush should promise to veto the transportation authorization bill until the trucking amendment is removed. Congressional leaders should cooperate with the president to remove this final roadblock to implementing an agreement that has not only promoted trade across the border but also encouraged progress, modernization and democracy within Mexico.

To maintain the ban against qualified, responsible and safe Mexican truck drivers imposes an expensive tax on the American economy, fl outs the law and insults our neighbors.

Daniel Griswold is the director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.