President Signs Transportation Spending Bill

President Bush signed the fiscal year 2002 appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation Dec. 18. The $59.6 billion bill, which covers DOT spending from Oct. 1, 2001, through Sept. 30, 2002, was delayed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and congressional concern over the Bush administration’s plans for cross-border trucking.

While some congressmen later complained about some of the bill’s pork-barrel projects, the real controversy in the spending plan centered on U.S. plans to open the U.S.-Mexico border to commercial trucks involved in international trade.

Early last year, a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration panel ruled the United States must abide by the treaty’s provisions, which called for opening the border to commercial trucks by January 2000. President Bush vowed to abide by the panel’s ruling and instructed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to develop procedures for opening the border. Safety advocates, organized labor and many members of Congress opposed the plan, and last summer, the House passed a DOT spending bill that prohibited the agency from processing applications of Mexican motor carriers wishing to operate beyond border commercial zones. The Senate followed with a bill that allowed DOT to process applications and grant operating authority, but with a list of conditions DOT Secretary Norman Mineta said at the time would “lead to the same stalemate created by the House of Representatives.”

The bill signed by Bush allows the administration to open the U.S. border to Mexican motor carriers, as called for under NAFTA, but imposes much stricter safety rules than those originally advanced by the administration. The administration’s approach would have granted Mexican carriers authority to operate in the United States for up to 18 months before undergoing safety audits. That approach was deemed too laissez-faire for Congress to accept, according to Todd Webster, communications director for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Congress was concerned about truck safety even before the events of Sept. 11 raised cross-border security issues. Murray and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., took the lead on the issue in the Senate and fashioned a compromise the administration and the House could agree to.

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A spokesman for American Trucking Associations said the bill met its concerns regarding NAFTA trucking. ATA wanted the borders open to free trade, but it also wanted trucks entering the United States from Mexico to meet U.S. safety standards.

Even with the signed bill, it may still be several months before Mexican truckers are allowed beyond the current commercial zones along the border. A key provision of the bill prevents any Mexican motor carrier from operating beyond the existing commercial zones until the DOT inspector general completes a comprehensive review of the steps taken by DOT and FMCSA in implementing the bill’s provisions. To be conducted within 180 days of the bill’s enactment, the review is to ensure that adequate safety personnel are in place, all safety procedures are followed, and inspection, record-keeping and information requirements are met. Following the inspector general’s report, the DOT secretary must certify in writing that opening the border to commercial traffic does not pose a safety risk to the American public. The bill also amends the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1999 to address cross-border trucking issues. FMCSA officials have not said when they expect the first Mexican trucks to begin crossing the border.

On the same day the president signed the bill, 11 Mexican trucking companies signed a $4 billion class-action lawsuit charging the U.S. government with illegally denying them access to U.S. markets under NAFTA. The suit, filed in federal court in Brownsville, Texas, was on behalf of at least 185 trucking firms, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers. As this issue went to press, it was unclear what impact the bill’s signing would have on the lawsuit.