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21 Years After Deal Made, Cross-Border Trucking Program Gets Rolling

The U.S.-Mexico cross-border trucking program — a component of the North American Free Trade Agreement — is moving forward. Proponents say it will add to Texas' prosperous trade relationship with Mexico. But union groups have some concerns.

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After two decades of political posturing, a cross-border trucking program will soon be ready to roll, opening up an avenue to expand trade between Texas and Mexico.

The U.S.-Mexico cross-border trucking program allows Mexican trucking companies to apply for permission to travel with their U.S.-bound goods beyond the current 20- to 25-mile limit past the border. Currently, most trucks haul goods to the border, where the products are warehoused and reloaded by American carriers for shipment to their final destinations.

But trade and union groups in the U.S. say a recent pilot program that tested the policy — a component of the North American Free Trade Agreement — did not compile enough reliable data and that American drivers could be at risk as a result.

Designed to make international trade more efficient, the program has been in limbo amid several bitter exchanges between U.S. and Mexican officials over the last two decades. After a pilot program initiated in 2007 by former President George W. Bush was defunded by the U.S. Congress two years later, the Mexican government retaliated and imposed tariffs on about $2 billion worth of American goods. That applied to nearly $200 million of Texas-produced goods in 2009, according to the office of the state’s former agriculture commissioner, Todd Staples. 

After a second, three-year pilot program was completed in October, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced in January that Mexican carriers are on track to enroll in the program if they meet various safety and training standards.

The program could add to an already booming trade relationship between Texas and Mexico. 

Mexico is the state’s largest trading partner and the country’s third, behind Canada and China, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based trade-tracking company. The Laredo and El Paso customs districts are the busiest ports on the border, with $269 billion and $86.4 billion in two-way trade, respectively, passing through those ports in 2014.

“Right now you have the opportunity for these trucks to go across the border faster. You have trade increasing because the economies are growing and energy costs are down,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. “So it’s an attractive area” for businesses.

O’Neil said she didn’t anticipate a majority of Mexican trucking companies applying for the program immediately because they have been using the current system — and its limited U.S. travel — for decades. The new program will also only apply to companies that can afford upgrades to their fleet, including electronic tracking devices. Carriers will also be subjected to pre-authorization audits, which include drug and alcohol testing, English proficiency and vehicle inspections.

Union groups, on the other hand, aren’t happy. 

Fred McLuckie, the director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Department of Federal Legislation and Regulation, said the pilot program left out vital information. Specifically, McLuckie said, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration report included mainly data from truckers who traveled inside the current limits. 

“I don’t know how you test the safety of long-haul trucking if they’re not going any further than the currently permitted commercial zones,” he said.

A report on the pilot program by the Congressional Research Service acknowledged that the sample was relatively small.

Through December 2013, only 14 Mexico-based carriers with operating capabilities were in the pilot program, five of which only had provisional operating authority, according to the report. And trucks from only two Mexican companies were used for the majority of the crossings.

“The 14 approved carriers have used about 45 trucks to make nearly 10,000 border crossings since October 2011,” the report said. “To put this number in context, on average about 14,000 trucks cross the border from Mexico each day.”

McLuckie added that the U.S. Department of Transportation's report on the pilot program used supplemental data from other carriers that didn’t participate in the program.

“The DOT said that they had these other groups of carriers, enterprise carriers and certificate carriers whose data they were using to 'complement the data' that they obtained with the small number of carriers,” he said. “That’s not statutorily permitted under the laws governing a pilot program.”

McLuckie said that in general, he wasn't opposed to Mexican truckers traveling more in the U.S. But the incomplete data means that American drivers will be on roadways with drivers who do not meet safety standards. That puts the safety of drivers in jeopardy, he said.

But O'Neil said that the program clearly sets in place requirements that ferret out unreliable carriers.

“It’s a pretty high bar in terms of standard and safety,” she said.

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