NAFTA Battle Looms

Congress returned from its summer recess facing a host of spending bills, including one funding the Department of Transportation for the 2002 fiscal year, which begins this month.

Before the recess, both houses of Congress had passed transportation appropriations bills that included restrictions for Mexican truckers crossing into the United States in NAFTA trade more stringent than those proposed by the Bush administration. The House version represents a virtual prohibition on Mexican carriers and states, “None of the funds in this Act may be used to process applications by Mexico-domiciled motor carriers for conditional or permanent authority to operate beyond the United States municipalities and commercial zones adjacent to the United States-Mexico border.”

The Senate version does not contain an outright prohibition, but does include 22 safety measures Mexican carriers would have to meet before qualifying for operating authority beyond current commercial zones. Those requirements are much stricter than those proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration earlier this year.

As we went to press, Congress was beginning to work out the differences between the two transportation bills. (Updates will be posted on eTrucker.com.)

Both versions pose a roadblock to meeting NAFTA obligations, according to the Bush administration, which would like to sign a bill with fewer restrictions than those offered by the Senate bill.

Speaking at a border summit at the University of Texas-Pan American Aug. 22, Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the Senate’s “numerous conditions would, collectively, lead to the same stalemate created by the House of Representatives.”

Mineta also said he was “concerned about the tenor of the recent debate on this issue” and the use of misleading statistics regarding the rate of inspection of Mexican trucks by U.S. inspectors. He also noted, “Some seem to argue that a Mexican carrier – precisely because it is from Mexico – will fail to comply with our laws.”

Mineta said the Bush administration was committed to living up to NAFTA’s trucking provisions. “The president’s senior advisors have indicated they will recommend that he veto any bill containing provisions that prevent the opening of the border to commercial traffic in a timely manner.”

He did allow that the administration was willing to take the time necessary to ensure highway safety. “Safety remains the Department of Transportation’s highest priority, and we will not sacrifice safety to implement NAFTA,” Mineta said. An effective program could be developed in time to meet the January 1, 2002, deadline, he also said but added, “If our ongoing work indicates that we need more time, we will take it.”

According to DOT officials, Mexico and its trucking industry have implemented a number of safety measures compatible with U.S. programs. Still, FMCSA’s recent proposals would ensure “the safety of all vehicles seeking to travel our roads,” Mineta said.

The summit did result in a $1 million grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration to establish a Center for Border Studies in Edinburg, Texas. The debate over Mexican truckers and NAFTA is expected to continue.

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