Truck war – Digging through the garbage to arrive at the truth

Chicago Tribune

It typically takes three trucks to haul a load of cargo from Mexico to Chicago. The first one carries it into the U.S., where the load is transferred to a second Mexican truck, which is allowed to operate only within 25 miles of the border. That truck shuttles the goods to an American-owned truck, within that 25-mile border zone, that will deliver it to the heartland.

That routine applies to all but one carrier — Transportes Olympic, of Monterrey, Mexico — which this month became the first Mexican trucking company to receive a permit to carry cargo all the way to its U.S. destination. By year’s end, the U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue 100 such permits.

Congress wants to put the brakes on this pilot program. Last week, the Senate voted 75-23 to strip program funding from next year’s transportation spending bill. In May, the House vote 411-3 to do the same.

Mexican trucks were supposed to be granted free access to U.S. highways under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994, but the Teamsters didn’t like the idea of foreign competition. Then-President Bill Clinton obliged by restricting the trucks to a transfer zone close to the border, a clear violation of NAFTA.

In early 2001, a federal arbitrator ruled against the U.S. and threatened fines of as much as $2 billion annually. When President Bush tried to remove the restrictions, a cry went up again: Mexican trucks are unsafe! They’re too heavy, they’re old and they aren’t inspected thoroughly. Their drivers aren’t trained as well as American drivers, spend too many hours on the road without stopping to sleep and often don’t speak English well enough to navigate U.S. highways. Opponents said truckers would smuggle drugs or terrorists into the country.

“We don’t know who these drivers are, and we don’t know what they’re bringing in,” Teamsters President James Hoffa said as the pilot program got under way. “The weapons of mass destruction George Bush is looking for could be in the backs of these trucks.”

Oh, give us a break.

As the arbitrator pointed out six years ago, the U.S. is free to set and enforce whatever safety standards it sees fit. The Department of Transportation says Mexican trucks will be subject to more rigorous inspections than U.S. carriers: Every single truck that participates in the pilot program will be inspected; every driver will have to undergo background checks and random drug and alcohol tests. Officials also point out that trucks crossing the border into the transfer zone last year had a slightly lower inspection failure rate than U.S. trucks.

You’d think that would let the air out of the Teamsters’ argument, but they’re still spouting disingenuous warnings about safety, and Congress is only too happy to go along — by a seemingly veto-proof margin. That won’t be the last word.

If the U.S. doesn’t live up to its side of the NAFTA bargain, Mexico has the right to retaliate by retaining tariffs it had agreed to lift. Watch for trouble next year, when tariffs on Mexican corn and beans are supposed to be removed. Mexico also could renege on its end of the pilot program, shutting out American trucks.

The big losers are consumers on both sides of the border. The current system adds $400 million annually to the cost of transporting goods between Mexico and the United States. This isn’t about protecting Americans from dangerous Mexican truckers; it’s about protecting the Teamsters from competition.

Response of the Mexican Ambassador