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May 25, 2007

Congress Votes to Require Bush Administration’s NAFTA Trucks Proposal to Comply With Congressional Safety Mandates

Provisions in Supplemental Funding Bill Require DOT to Address Safety Issues and Disclose Details of Plan to Give Mexico-Domiciled Trucks Full Access to U.S.Roads

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Congress last night put a premium on the welfare of American drivers by approving provisions in a supplemental Iraq funding bill to ensure that any pilot program to allow Mexico-domiciled trucks full access to the nation’s highways does not circumvent safety standards or congressional oversight. 

The provisions concerning cross-border trucking require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to follow all applicable rules and regulations that apply to pilot programs in allowing Mexico-domiciled trucks into the country. They also mandate that trucking companies and trucks comply with all applicable U.S. laws and that the operation of Mexico-domiciled trucks in the United States does not have a negative impact on safety.

“We applaud the Congress’s persistence in ensuring the safety of the public on our highways,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “This bill requires the Bush administration to address significant safety concerns before it attempts to force open the border to potentially dangerous NAFTA trucks.”

“Two congressional hearings examining the plan to allow trucks from Mexico to travel beyond the border zones uncovered serious safety deficiencies and deemed the pilot program a complete sham and in violation of existing law,” said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.“Now, with statutory safeguards in place, we need the Department of Transportation to come clean and publicly release documents explaining their plans for conducting this program.”

The provisions in the bill require greater public disclosure of the details of the pilot program and more opportunity for public comment. They provide for more oversight of the program by the DOT Inspector General, who will report back to Congress whether the DOT is meeting safety regulations and addressing problems.

“The bill provides for a more transparent approach to the opening of our border and independent verification of the process,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition. “As a result, these provisions will help address the real public safety concerns related to this rushed DOT program and will help to ensure that our nation’s truck safety laws will be enforced.”

The bill also requires the Inspector General to determine whether the DOT can gauge if the program is having an adverse effect on safety; whether federal and state monitoring and enforcement activities are sufficient to ensure that Mexican-domiciled carriers and drivers in the pilot program are complying will all applicable laws and regulations; and whether the pilot program consists of a representative sample of Mexico-domiciled motor carriers likely to enter and operate in the United States. Finally, the bill requires the DOT to run a separate pilot program in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security before it permits Mexico-domiciled trucks to haul hazardous materials into the country.

Both the House and Senate had previously passed bills to require the demonstration program – announced by the DOT on Feb. 23 – to comply with the law and congressionally mandated safety standards. The program was the administration’s latest attempt to comply with a North American Free Trade Agreement provision, included in the trade agreement after being sought by the trucking industry, to open the U.S. border fully to Mexico-domiciled motor carriers by 1995.

Neither country was prepared for this to occur at the time, but in 2001, a NAFTA tribunal ordered the U.S. to fully open its border to Mexico-domiciled trucking companies. In response, the Bush administration said it would implement a “pilot program” to allow up to 100 motor carriers from Mexico full access to U.S. highways. However, the project clearly violated U.S. laws governing the conduct of pilot programs, in addition to violating the 2001 congressional mandate that Mexico-domiciled trucking companies meet U.S. safety standards regarding hours of service, driver training and licensing, and vehicle safety before being allowed access to the nation’s roadways.

Shortly after the DOT’s announcement, Gillan testified before a House transportation subcommittee and Claybrook testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee about the legal problems with the Bush plan and the safety improvements needed before allowing full, cross-border trucking from Mexico.

Starting in October 2006, Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety tried repeatedly to obtain details about the administration’s plan to open the southern border to long-haul, Mexico-domiciled trucks. The groups sued the DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on March 13 to force the agencies to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request by providing more details about the secretive program; they still have not received any of the requested information.

On April 23, Public Citizen joined environmental and labor groups in a lawsuit against the agencies to require them to follow federal law by publishing details about the demonstration project and seeking citizen input – or stop the program altogether. The DOT announced on April 30 that it would adhere to the law by posting information about its plan in the Federal Register on May 1 and allowing the required 30 days for public comment.

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