Kansas State Police – Satisfied with compliance of Mexican trucks

It’s been 15 years coming, but a trickle of trucks has begun hauling shipments from both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

A pilot program — called a “demonstration” — began in September, when a select few Mexican and U.S. trucking companies were allowed to haul loads between countries. More carriers will be added as they are approved, up to a maximum of 100 companies for each country.

The Web site of the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Association — an arm of the Department of Transportation — this week showed that five Mexican companies with a total of 15 trucks and three U.S. companies with a total of 30 trucks have been approved for the international runs.

Although no local companies are expected to join in international hauling, local truck company owner Kevin Nelson is concerned about pollution and noncompliance with U.S. regulations . And Kansas law-enforcement officers are more concerned about foreign owner-operators working illegally in the United States.

The program is the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Negotiations for NAFTA began in June 1990, and an agreement was reached and signed in December 1992 by U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulrone, and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico.

All three nations approved the agreement, with U.S. Congressional approval coming in November 1993; President Clinton signed the bill, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994.

Now Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, will decide whether to continue the pilot program that developed from his father’s efforts.

“The House and the Senate both voted to suspend any financing, U.S. government financing, of the cross-border demonstration project,” said Clayton Boyce, vice president of public affairs and press secretary for the American Trucking Associations in Arlington, Va.

The ATA is made up of 37,000 member companies and serves as an advocacy group for carriers registered with the Department of Transportation, whether they have one truck or a fleet of thousands. ATA’s primary activities include lobbying Congress and campaigning for safety.

“That (bill) hasn’t been signed into law yet,” Boyce said. “The bill is in conference and it probably will be until December before they have a final bill for signing by the president. Then it depends on what the president does. The president could veto it; he could sign it.”

In the meantime, the program will continue to operate, under the scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Association, law enforcement officers and an assortment of interested organizations, unions and other observers.

Licensing

Kansas Highway Patrol Capt. Dan Meyer of the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program is satisfied, so far, that the legal cross-border Mexican truckers are holding to the same regulations imposed on U.S. carriers. Mexican companies are meeting the same rigid inspection standards for company operations and truck safety, insurance, a strict screening process and language requirements.

“And this process that they have to go through is more strict than if a new company wanted to start up in the United States,” Meyer said. “You could begin a new trucking company today and you don’t have to meet the standards that these companies have to meet.”

Before they enter the U.S., every truck is inspected for safety and the driver is screened to make sure he or she can read and speak English. Mexican trucks are prohibited from hauling hazardous materials and cannot haul passengers, other than a co-driver.

They also must have proof they’ve been inspected within the past 90 days and have passed a rigorous Level I inspection, which includes a mechanic inspection, he said. Drivers also have to meet drug testing standards that are compatible with the United States requirements, with pre-employment and random screenings.

Mexican drivers must have a licencia federal to operate in the United States.

“They’ve basically been identified as the 51st state of the United States, inasmuch as the licensing provision,” Meyer said.

A ticket written in Lyon County to the holder of a licencia federal can result in a license suspension. Local officers can run a license query through the new data system and check to see whether the license is valid or suspended.

“So we have provisions in place to ensure that they’re properly licensed,” Meyer said.

Law enforcement in the past 12 to 18 months has seen a marked increase in the number of Mexican semi tractor-trailers traveling through Kansas, though none of them are taking part in the cross-border project.

“Our biggest problem are those Mexican registered trucks that are trying to lease on to the United States companies,” Meyer said. “In the state of Kansas, we see far more of that and that’s something we’re fighting constantly.”

Those illegal Mexican trucks, he said, likely pose far more hazards on the highway than the few trucks operating legally out of Mexico. A U.S. company that illegally signs on an owner-operator of a truck registered in Mexico may not be following other rules on important issues, such as speaking the language or carrying vehicle insurance.

“That’s a bigger concern than the foreign companies,” Meyer said.

Potential pollution

Local truck-line owner Kevin Nelson of Red Line said that he does not plan to participate in cross-border trucking. He is concerned, however, about the condition of equipment that will come over the border from Mexico, and the pollution it may cause.

“Their average truck in Mexico is a 1993 model, and we all know with the new emissions that we’re trying to meet globally that equipment that old is obviously very pollutant to the air,” he said, adding that the average U.S. truck is a 2001 model.

Emissions standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency already are becoming more stringent and more expensive every year.

“Especially just this last year, the engine price went up $10,000,” he said, primarily because of new emissions laws. Another change is coming in 2010.

Nelson also said he was concerned about accidents and drug tests in Mexico being reported, as they are done in the United States.

“There’s a lot to be thought about. … a lot more to it than just allowing a person to pass through an inspection station,” Nelson said.

“And most of the American truckers polled do not want to drive in Mexico because of the drivers and the volatility down there,” he said.

Hijackings occur, people disappear, and judges are shot; criminals control courts in some areas.

“What I feel is sad, the last 10 to 15 years a lot of the people they put in charge of highway safety in the Department of Transportation are not very knowledgeable people. They’re more political, not knowledge-based, and that doesn’t spell good things for the industry,” Nelson said.

Short hauls

Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate within 25 miles of the Mexico-U.S. border since 1982, primarily dropping off and picking up trailers at truck yards. Many of those drayage trucks were aging and did not have to meet the regulations now in effect for the cross-border project.

“…(T)he FMCSA, in preparation for this, started increased inspections of the drayage trucks and they’ve got actually the rejection rate for Mexican trucks lower than for U.S. trucks at the border,” the ATA’s Boyce said.

According to the NAFTA agreement, Mexican long-haul trucks must meet all of the regulations that U.S. trucks meet, he said. Canadian companies have been operating in the U.S. under the same terms for many years.

“The (Mexican) trucking companies that we have seen joining the demonstration project are the better trucking companies that want to do across-border trucking,” Boyce said. “These have all been inspected by the FMCSA in Mexico. They actually send an inspection team to their home terminal in Mexico and they look at safety records and repair records and equipment.”

Boyce said that the rules strictly prohibit any inter- or intrastate hauling by Mexican trucks within the United States. Mexican trucks can bring a load into the U.S. and pick up a load in the U.S. to take back to Mexico; they cannot under any circumstances pick up a load in the U.S. and deliver it to a U.S. destination, Boyce said. The same restraints apply to U.S. trucks hauling in Mexico.

At this point, the ATA stance on cross-border shipping is that the U.S. must live up to the NAFTA agreement.

“As far as the complaints about safety and drug testing and all that, FMCSA has shown a resolve to address those … concerns. From what we have seen, the trucks are as safe as American trucks and they’re going to be inspected frequently,” he said.

“So, our position is the demonstration should go ahead and FMCSA should show that they can run it safely and properly. And then at the end of that year, take a look at it and see whether it can continue or not.”

Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association, said that his organization is concerned about safety for all trucks, and about other issues that NAFTA may not have resolved.

“We have concerns that they pay the same taxes that we do,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker’s group also worries that drivers will not be able to read or speak English well, and that could cause accidents or other problems. That concern, however, is not limited to the Mexican drivers. Drivers from some Canadian areas may speak primarily French, for example; that also has been a cause for concern.

“It’s not just Hispanics,” he said. “It’s from the Balkans, it’s from all over the place that are legally here in the United States and operating commercial vehicles for U.S. carriers.”

KMCA also wants to protect U.S. truckers from the competition that would be created if Congress agrees to let Mexican truckers pick up and deliver loads within the U.S. Unions share that concern.

“We have a lot of concerns that other people have, but we want to make sure that the public understands that there are broader issues than what have been thrown up about scaring the American public,” Whitaker said. “I do think there’s been a lot of misinformation with the Mexican trucks.”