Pulse – April 2009

Revival of the cross-border trucking program played second fiddle to cross-border drugs and guns during President Obama’s April 16 visit in Mexico. Little emerged on trucking after Obama’s talks with Mexico’s Felipe Calderon.

“My team is working with President Calderon’s team to resolve this issue and I’m hopeful that we can resolve it in an effective way,” Obama told reporters.

Congress in March voted to cut funding for the year-and-a-half-old pilot program. Mexico, tired of seeing its neighbor waffling on NAFTA provisions for more than a decade, slapped higher tariffs on U.S. exports worth about $2.4 billion.

Obama says he wants a cross-border program revived, and that he wants stronger labor and environmental protection to be part of any NAFTA program. His transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, sent some specific ideas, presumably along those lines, to the White House before his boss visited Mexico.

Complaints about an open border with Mexico have focused on several issues. Some are job-related, such as concerns that U.S. fleets will hire low-wage Mexicans, or that Mexican drivers will illegally haul U.S. domestic freight. There are concerns about truck emissions.

The most publicized issue has been safety, though a Feb. 6 report on the pilot program from the U.S. DOT’s Office of Inspector General suggests there’s not much to worry about. During the program’s first year, participating Mexican carriers:

· Had no reportable crashes.
· Had a vehicle out-of-service rate of 8.29 percent. The comparable rate for U.S. equipment was 21.72 percent.
· Had a driver out-of-service rate of 0.46 percent. The comparable rate for U.S. drivers was 6.94 percent, or 15 times as high.

The report stresses that the data was inadequate for producing meaningful results. Still, what’s there is more than anecdotal. The carriers made 12,516 trips, 1,443 of them going beyond the border commercial zone.

If the program isn’t expansive enough to be conclusive but yields promising early results, the logical thing would be to expand it with the same caution used in launching the pilot.

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To be eligible, carriers had to pass the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s audit for controlled substances testing, compliance with hours of service, proof of financial responsibility, records of vehicles inspections and driver qualifications. Only 29 Mexican carriers were admitted to the program, which was expected to take 100.

Of course, when it comes to Congress, the issue isn’t primarily safety. It’s protecting jobs, as is obvious from the loudest voices – Teamsters and others. America’s trucking jobs are important, but Mexico doesn’t threaten them. Even in this weak economy, some fleets are hiring. The current lull in the driver shortage will last about as long as $2.25 diesel.

After his meeting with Calderon, Obama said: “The last thing we want to do at a time when the global economy is contracting and trade is shrinking is to resort to protectionist measures.”

Indeed. If you really believe that, Mr. President, preach it to Congress.