Cross-border program at crossroads – Support for program exists in the industry and in Congress

Interview with Hector Q
Interview with Hector Q
When Congress reconvenes in September, it may break San Antonio’s economic development heart.

A bill is pending a House vote that aims to end the U.S.-Mexico cross-border trucking pilot program that started a year ago — a program that has its roots in San Antonio.

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted unanimously July 31 on a resolution that would end the test program on its one-year anniversary on Sept. 6.

If the House and the Senate approve the resolution in one form or another, President Bush is expected to veto it unless it’s included in a larger measure. Still, opponents of cross-border trucking believe they have enough congressional votes to override a veto.

The proposal that led to the pilot project originated in San Antonio for economic reasons. A one-truck, one-driver truck freight system to and from Mexico means San Antonio could be a stopping point for warehousing and distribution services. It hadn’t been considered a stopping point before the test program began because all freight had to change carriers at the border about 150 miles away.

Consumers have something at stake, too. Cross-border trucking saves time and money because the border becomes less of an obstacle, carriers say.

Three of the four Bexar County congressmen, Republicans Lamar Smith and Henry Cuellar and Democrat Charles Gonzalez, said this month they would vote against the measure if it came to a floor vote. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, did not return calls and e-mails for comment.

“I think the pilot project was a great compromise,” Gonzalez said. “My fear is that people will say one year is not enough information. There is no harm in extending the pilot project.”

The pilot program ended a 12-year delay in one-driver, one-truck international deliveries originally authorized by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“The trucking industry views this as a threat, but I believe we must abide by our agreements,” Gonzalez said, referring to NAFTA.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Aug. 4 announced plans to extend the test period another two years. The agency said it needed more results before making cross-border trucking permanent.

About two years after the 2001 terrorism attacks, the Free Trade Alliance San Antonio proposed the pilot program to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a way to test new security technologies, including radio-frequency and transponder devices. Trucks transport about 75 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade.

The pilot project idea gained momentum in 2006 when San Antonio banker Tom Frost, representing the alliance, and Monterrey, Mexico, businessman Eugenio Clariond, who headed an international business Mexican group, visited with Homeland Security and Transportation Department officials.

While San Antonio fought for cross-border trucking as an economic development issue, the matter faced fierce resistance from truck-driving groups, especially the Teamsters union and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Mexico lacks the safety systems to properly deliver freight beyond the border zone, said Todd Spencer, the association’s executive vice president. Violations continue to occur with drivers who don’t speak English or keep logbooks and with trucks with unsafe brakes, lights and other vehicle conditions, he said.

Mexican trucks also are crossing into the United States loaded with cheaper, subsidized diesel fuel, giving them an unfair cost advantage over U.S. carriers and drivers, Spencer added.

About 100,000 U.S. trucks have been idled in 2008 because of high diesel fuel costs, he said. While drivers cannot say that competition with Mexican drivers in the pilot program alone has put them out of business, truck drivers “face a combination of high costs and an inability to offset those costs,” Spencer said.

But the facts do not bear out the safety concerns, said John Hill, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration administrator. More than 1,300 U.S. deliveries have occurred in the pilot project without an accident or crash.

Federal inspectors have checked about 5,000 long-haul Mexican trucks as part of the pilot project, but only 9.2 percent have been placed out of service. The U.S. truck out-of-service rate is 22 percent, Hill said.

“This project supports our economy by saving consumers’ money, reducing shipping costs and giving U.S. trucking companies and drivers new opportunities,” Hill said. “At a time of surging goods exports, we could hardly choose a worse time to turn our back on open trade and investment and embrace a protectionist agenda, especially in the very sector that makes trade in goods and services possible.”

In addition, if the United States unilaterally ended the cross-border trucking access, Mexico could impose trade sanctions under NAFTA, affecting numerous U.S. industries, Hill warned.

One Mexican long-haul trucking company that makes U.S. deliveries under the test program said the one-driver, one-truck system saves time and money for its customers. Deliveries can occur at least one day quicker when the freight does not have stop on one side of the border to be taken across by another carrier and picked up by a third carrier on the other side, said José Gil, traffic manager for Transportes Olympic.

Costs are cut when the freight doesn’t have to be reloaded from one truck to another, he said.

Transportes Olympic is based in Apodaca, an industrial district near Monterrey’s General Mariano Escobedo International Airport. The company has shipped steel products and building materials to U.S. customers under the program. It used one flatbed truck to make, on average, one U.S. delivery a week, but recently added four 2009-model Freightliner long-haul trucks to its U.S. fleet, Gil said.

“We have been successful with this program. If two more years are added, that’s good news for us and our many customers,” Gil said.

“We have to respect what the government says,” he said. “They started the program. If they end it, we have to leave it at that.”
SOURCE:David Hendricks – San Antonio Express-News