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March 8, 2007

Don’t Open U.S.Highways to Mexico-Domiciled Trucks Under Fake Pilot Project, Public Citizen Urges Congress

Testimony Before Senate Subcommittee Exposes Serious Safety Threats, Legal Problems With Bush Administration’s NAFTA Trucks Plan

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congress must halt the Bush administration’s dangerous plan to provide access to all U.S. highways for Mexico-domiciled trucks under a program that fails congressionally mandated safety requirements, according to testimony given today by Public Citizen to a Senate subcommittee. The testimony revealed how the administration’s current strategy for implementing a 2001 NAFTA order to provide such access illegally re-labels a longstanding administration border-opening plan as a “pilot project.”

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981, testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies about the safety improvements needed before allowing cross-border trucking from Mexico.

“This pilot program is intended to serve as a showpiece in order to permit the secretary to proclaim victory and declare the entire southern border open to unfettered, long-haul truck commerce before the end of 2008,” Claybrook said. 

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) included a requirement that highways in Canada, Mexico and the United States be fully accessible to trucking companies based in any NAFTA signatory nation, a rule pushed by large U.S. trucking firms. The Clinton administration refused to open the southern border under NAFTA because of concerns about safety and environmental problems that had not been addressed. Mexico filed a challenge under NAFTA, and in 2001, won a ruling from a NAFTA tribunal ordering the United States to open the border or face permanent trade sanctions.

Congress passed new requirements in 2001 under the Murray/Shelby Amendment, Section 350, in the FY 2002 Department of Transportation (DOT) appropriations legislation. The amendment imposed many specific safety requirements for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to enforce   prior to permitting any Mexico-domiciled motor carrier to operate beyond the border zones. The DOT’s Inspector General was charged with auditing the agency’s progress in complying.

In 2002 and 2003, Public Citizen and a coalition of consumer, labor and environmental groups successfully sued in U.S. federal court to block the Bush administration’s attempt to implement the trucking rules based on environmental concerns, but the decision was overturned by a 2004 Supreme Court ruling. The administration’s latest attempt to open U.S. highways to Mexico-domiciled trucks was announced in February.

In her testimony, Claybrook described how this new pilot program – which would open the border to 100 hand-picked, Mexico-domiciled trucking companies – does not comply with the congressionally mandated template for pilot programs conducted by DOT because it violates   procedures requiring the secretary of transportation to provide public notice, seek public comment and design the project to evaluate the safety issues concerning these trucks. Claybrook asked Congress to ensure that the trial complies with the law.

Claybrook also testified that DOT has not complied with all of Section 350 of the 2002 DOT Appropriations Act, which is required before any truck is permitted to cross the border. She maintained that the DOT’s twelve-month limited trial would not be long enough and would be too limited to allow for the collection of sufficient  data for an accurate and reliable analysis of the safety performance of NAFTA trucks. She urged lawmakers to: require DOT to document that every state will enforce state laws to issue out-of-service orders to foreign vehicles that do not have proper operating authority; provide that certification of compliance with U.S. safety standards is enforced for all commercial vehicles; increase the minimum level of insurance coverage required for Mexico-domiciled motor carriers engaging in commerce in the United States; require that commercial vehicles entering the country are equipped with electronic on-board recorders to document hours-of-service; and require National Transportation Safety Board investigations of fatal or injury-producing crashes involving cross-border trucks.

Claybrook also detailed FMCSA’s poor oversight record on safety issues in the United States and the border zone, raising concerns about the agency’s failure to: collect data from the states about license suspensions and revocations; document drug, alcohol and physical fitness testing; identify high-risk motor carriers; ensure compliance with hours-of-service limits; and certify trucks’ compliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. 

“The agency has never met any of its safety goals in the United States, even after weakening them repeatedly these past seven years,” said Claybrook. “FMCSA just isn’t up to the job of additional responsibilities overseeing cross-border trucking.”

Claybrook urged Congress to prevent the pilot program from taking place. Past pilot programs conducted by FMCSA have been geared in each instance to provide regulatory relief to a sector of the trucking industry or to foster trucking “productivity” rather than improve safety. She cast doubt on the effectiveness of the current proposed trial and indicated that it was designed to buttress the policy preference on allowing Mexico-domiciled trucks that the agency already has formed. 

“Pilot programs promoted by the agency are not scientific efforts to obtain objective information, but show trials conducted to provide cover for a preconceived policy choice,” she said.

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