Mexican truck rolls into the U.S. and the history books

Meena Thiruvengadam
Express-News Staff Writer

A North Carolina-bound Mexican truck crossed the U.S. border at 12:51 a.m. Saturday in Laredo, setting in motion a one-year trial program that has broken a 10-year free-trade impasse.

Hauling a 20,000-pound shipment of steel, driver Luis González became the first Mexican trucker to cross the border under a controversial Transportation Department program aimed at satisfying one of the last outstanding components of the North American Free Trade Agreement. His truck underwent more than two hours of inspections just south of the border before driving without fanfare into the United States.

In the process, González illustrated a point that San Antonio political and business leaders have been trying to make for more than a decade: The Alamo City could become a hub for NAFTA-related truck traffic with the opening of the border.

The first destination along González’s more than 1,500-mile journey from Monterrey: a Valero truck stop at Interstate 35 North and Fischer Road. He stopped there at 4:30 a.m., slept in the cab and had Subway for lunch before hitting the road again after 3 p.m.

González, like all truckers in the United States, is allowed under law to work a maximum of 14 hours in a shift, 11 of them behind the wheel. He must then rest for 10 hours.

Fernando Páez, the owner of Transportes Olympic, the Nuevo León-based company that employs González, bought his first tractor-trailer rig in San Antonio.

“Seventeen years ago, I drove here in my little Chevy S10, crawled around under all of the trucks, bought one and started my business,” he said.

Now, Páez’s fleet includes more than 35 trucks. Of those, two are authorized to operate in the United States, but so far, only one, driven by González, embarked on the journey north.

Páez’s trucks were cleared late Thursday to operate in the United States despite several attempts by Congress and organized labor to stop the DOT pilot program.
Luis Gonzalez at Rest
(Photos by Edward A. Ornelas/Express-News)

.”I’m very proud and also feel we’re very lucky to have been given this opportunity,” Páez said as he watched U.S. inspectors at the border test his rig’s hazard lights and turn signals.

“We always had the vision that this was going to happen someday.”

The one-year pilot program plans to open the country’s southern border to truckers from up to 100 Mexican carriers. At most, 540 trucks are expected to enter the United States under the program, according to court documents filed by the DOT.

Up to 100 U.S. carriers also will gain access to the Mexican market.

Páez, who accompanied González for a short portion of his history-making journey, filed an application in 2002 for authority to operate anywhere in the United States.

“Safety is my main goal,” he said.

In the one year before its DOT safety inspections, Transportes Olympic had no crashes and no trucks taken out of service for failure to meet safety guidelines, DOT said in legal filings.

For 39-year-old González, participating in the program provides an opportunity to explore his passions of meeting new people and seeing new places.

“I like the adventure of the open road,” the father of two said.

Although his English isn’t perfect, it is very good. He spends his drive time listening to English-language educational CDs. He keeps a Spanish-English dictionary in his pocket just in case.

His journey to North Carolina, where the steel he’s hauling will be used in the construction of a Baptist church, will take him through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.

Typically, González spends weekends with his wife of 13 years and their two daughters. But he left his family late Friday “because it was important to start this program.”

He criticized the current cross-border hauling procedure of using three trucks — one to go from the Mexican interior to the border, a second to cross the border and a third to drive into the U.S. interior. It is too expensive, takes too much time and is more likely to result in cargo damage, he said.

“It’s better to wait in the line and cross like this,” González said.

Although NAFTA requires American, Mexican and Canadian truckers to be authorized to operate in all three countries, most Mexican truckers haven’t been allowed beyond a 25-mile border zone.

The United States banned Mexican trucks from going any farther in 1982 because Mexico did not allow U.S. truckers on its roads. Canada and the United States faced a similar situation at that time but quickly resolved it.

Cross-border trucking provisions included in NAFTA were meant to end the U.S.-Mexico trucking dispute. But the provisions sparked another battle — this one involving organized labor, environmental groups, truckers from both sides of the border, and the U.S. and Mexican governments.

“I don’t think this really has anything to do with Mexican truckers,” said Brigham McCown, a lawyer with Winstead PC and former chief counsel to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency overseeing the trucking pilot program. “The Teamsters and other American truckers are concerned about losing their jobs.”

But Mexican truckers participating in the program can only deliver cargo directly from Mexico to a U.S. destination and from a U.S. destination to Mexico. No deliveries are allowed between U.S. cities.

“To a great extent, there won’t really be head-to-head competition,” McCown said.

A smooth pilot program could give NAFTA’s trucking provisions a better chance at full implementation and San Antonio a better chance at becoming an international logistics hub.

Páez is optimistic.

“This is going to be the future,” he said.