Luis Gonzalez Journey to North Carolina

luis_gonzalez2.jpgWILSON’S MILLS, N.C. — When trucker Luis González drove from Monterrey, Mexico, to North Carolina last week, he expected to be the first of many who would make such a journey. Now it appears he may be one of only a handful.

González, a driver for Nuevo León-based Transportes Olympic, is part of a controversial Department of Transportation cross-border trucking pilot program that has the potential to end a 13-year free trade impasse between the United States and Mexico. He hopes it paves the way to new destinations for him.

“I like the adventure of the open road,” he said. “Through this program, maybe I will know Alaska. I want to know Alaska.”

But the day after González made the first delivery under the program — dropping a load of steel at a Baptist church construction site in a small town nestled among farmland, tall trees and picturesque cottages — U.S. senators voted to pull funding for the program.

No one knows the exact cost of the one-year program, but the 75-23 vote to amend a transportation spending bill falls in line with an earlier House decision to pull funding. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.

The program aims to give truckers from 100 Mexican carriers access to U.S. roadways and would be a step toward implementing one of the last outstanding components of the North American Free Trade Agreement. As many as 100 U.S. trucking companies also would gain access to Mexico.

More than $500 million already has been spent on preparing to open the country’s southern border, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency overseeing the program. Should the transportation spending bill become law, funding for the program would be suspended Oct. 1.

“This is something we’ve been trying to do for a number of years, but it seems every time we get close, someone in Congress wants to move the goalpost,” said John Hill, the safety agency’s administrator.

With hopes of breaking a stalemate that dates back 25 years, the Transportation Department announced plans for the pilot program in February. Administrators said it would provide an opportunity to test critics’ claims that Mexican trucks are a danger to the environment and to U.S. motorists.

The Teamsters have been the most vocal critic of the NAFTA provisions and have worked for more than a decade to stop their implementation.

“This is the wrong program at the wrong time. It endangers motorists on highways and it endangers national security,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a Wednesday interview. “Big business wants cheaper labor, and they don’t give a damn.”

González earns the equivalent of 13 cents per mile, plus about $20 a day for expenses. U.S. trucking giant Celadon pays truckers 31 cents or more a mile. Truckers in the United States earn an average of about $36,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cross-border trucking advocates say the real issue is a fear of competition and a desire to protect American trucking jobs, but not all U.S. truckers are scared of their Mexican colleagues.

Like González, Victor Dominguez drove a truck from Laredo to North Carolina. But instead of driving his own load across the border, he had to collect his cargo from a Mexican trucker who made the crossing.

Dominguez, an Argentina native who has been in the business 45 years and drives for Trans Texas Transport Inc., believes a trucking shortage on both sides of the border leaves plenty of work to go around.

González’s safe, uneventful delivery to North Carolina says nothing about the overall ability of Mexican carriers to operate safely in the United States, Hoffa said. “This isn’t about one truck. It’s the overall fleet that they’re going to come across with.”

Although the Department of Transportation has outlined stricter safety regulations for Mexican carriers than those imposed on their U.S. counterparts, problems still exist in the DOT plan, the agency’s inspector general said in his latest report to Congress. The department has “insufficient plans to check every truck every time” it crosses the border, the report says.

Trucking companies would undergo rigorous safety inspections every three months, but drivers’ licenses and safety decals would be checked at each border crossing, according to the DOT plan. Initial safety checks also would be limited to only the trucks on a carrier’s property when the Transportation Department conducts the on-site inspection.

Companies would not be restricted to trucks that have been inspected, the inspector general’s report says. Of the 140 trucks Mexican companies intend to operate in the United States under the pilot program, 78, or 56 percent, have been inspected.

So far, Transportes Olympic is the only Mexican company authorized to operate in the United States under the DOT program, and only two of its trucks have been certified. Owner Fernando Páez said operating his trucks safely is his top priority.

The company has a clean safety record, according to the U.S. government.

The first truck Páez dispatched across the border was a 2007 model sporting less than 150,000 miles. The first driver, González, has more than 10 years’ experience driving big rigs and is among the company’s best, Páez said.

Along the road from Monterrey to North Carolina, González regularly performed meticulous checks of his vehicle, stayed within drive time limits, and once motioned to a trucker passing by that his toolbox was open, helping save motorists from a potential threat.

He tracked his driving and rest hours just as his American counterparts do — with special forms and a pen. He rested for 10 hours a night, spending much of the time in his truck cab’s comfortable bed under sunflower-printed sheets.

As other truckers flew past him on the highway, González stayed below posted speed limits.

“It’s important for me to be safe,” González said. “I have a wife and two daughters at home.”

Other than a Mexican license plate and a small caravan of journalists, there wasn’t much that differentiated González from U.S. truckers. His wasn’t a sleepless journey made in a rickety old truck belching black smoke, as critics had predicted. Instead, it was a long haul like the thousands that take place each day in the United States.

On the way home to Mexico, he picked up a load of raw steel in Decatur, Ala. It was headed for a factory in Mexico.

George Griffin, foreman of the construction site where González delivered his cargo, said he doesn’t mind sharing the road with Mexican truckers.

“I think the really dangerous people on the road are the young and the elderly,” he said.

Besides, he said, Mexican companies generally provide him with better prices for construction supplies. And in construction, “whichever company comes up with the best price gets the job,” Griffin said.

Building Systems de México, the company that manufactured the steel rafters González delivered, is often a winner, he said. And with Mexican exporters expecting to shave 15 percent from their operating costs should the U.S. open its southern border, buyers such as Griffin could eventually see lower prices.

“When you’re spending $300,000 for steel for a project, saving anything you can is important,” he said.

In González’s eyes, the cross-border trucking program is important because it will save time and money for companies hauling cargo across the border.

As far as being able to drive safely, González is convinced Mexican drivers must be among the world’s best because of all the obstacles they face on their roads.

“The Mexican people crossing here know the rules, laws, and all the things about driving American people know,” he said.

Meena Thiruvengadam
Express-News Business Writer