Crossing the line

Further opening of the Southern border has many owner-operators – and members of Congress – hotter than a chili pepper. Do the numbers justify the fear?

By Andy Duncan
Call it camionerophobia: fear of camioneros, or Mexican truckers. An example is a recent column by Jeff Dreibus in the Citizen-Times of Asheville, N.C., more than 1,300 miles from the border: “If this pilot program ‘succeeds,’ thousands of overloaded, outdated trucks which may not be adequately inspected will spew obsolete high-sulfur Pemex diesel exhaust as their non-drug-tested drivers who don’t read or speak English speed along our interstates hauling who knows what – or whom – in their trailers. And because Mexican drivers work for substantially less than their American counterparts, our trucking industry and our truck drivers will suffer.” As if that weren’t enough, Dreibus adds, there’s “the nightmarish possibility that terrorists could use such a vehicle to deliver a nuclear device right into the heart of a U.S. city.”

Few owner-operators would cite terrorism as the main problem with President Bush’s controversial cross-border program, which proposes allowing up to 100 Mexican carriers to deliver international loads in the United States for a year, in return for up to 100 U.S. carriers having the same privilege in Mexico. Currently 4.5 million Mexican trucks make the crossing annually into the 25-mile commercial zone. The real worry is the economic effect of a southern border completely open to Class 8 trucks.

“There is definitely a validity in that fear,” says Chelsea White, Schneider National professor of logistics and freight transportation at Georgia Tech.

At press time, five Mexican and three U.S. fleets had cross-border privileges, but how much longer the program would last was unclear. Unpopular in Congress, the program is denied funds in the transportation-spending bills passed by both House and Senate, which now must be reconciled en route to the White House. Bush has threatened to veto any final spending bill that would stop the program.

Without a doubt, cutting wait times at the border by eliminating many of the current transfers of cargo between U.S. and Mexican carriers will make the supply chain more efficient and cut costs, White says. “This will clearly benefit business, but if anyone’s going to get wounded here, who’s going to get gored?”

For starters, members of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says its executive vice president, Todd Spencer. The real lure for U.S. fleets isn’t Mexican freight or saving drayage costs at the border, but the low-wage Mexican driver pool, he says. With cheap competition, “You’d better figure you’ve seen the cap on your wages,” Spencer says. “You’re worth only as much as you can be replaced for.”

How cheap is that competition? The San Antonio Express-News reported without attribution that the driver of the first Mexican truck to cross the border under the new program was hauling for 13 cents a mile. That driver, Luis Gonz

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