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May 2, 2007

House Committee Votes to Preserve Congress’s Role in Upholding Safety Requirements for Mexico-Domiciled Trucks Pilot Program

Bill Will Require Bush Administration’s NAFTA Trucks Plan to Adhere to Existing Law and Put Public Safety First     

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A U.S. House of Representatives committee today approved a bill to ensure that the Bush administration’s attempt to implement a demonstration project to allow Mexico-domiciled trucks full access to the nation's highways does not circumvent safety standards or congressional oversight. 

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee overwhelmingly passed an amended version of HR 1773, the Safe American Roads Act of 2007, to ensure that any pilot or demonstration program conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to allow Mexico-domiciled trucks to travel throughout the country does not jeopardize or degrade the safety of the American public. The committee approved the bill 66 to 0 with bipartisan support.

“It is a stunning repudiation of the Bush administration’s attempt to force open the border to potentially dangerous trucks before addressing significant safety concerns,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “This so-called pilot program is just a showpiece for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to prematurely declare victory and give Mexico-domiciled trucking companies unfettered access to U.S. roads by the end of 2008.” 

“There was strong support for this bill on both sides of the aisles,” said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Both Democrats and Republicans alike joined to rebuke the DOT for a runaway demonstration project that lacked any public input and ignored current law.”

On February 23, the DOT announced that it would implement a demonstration project to allow up to 100 motor carriers from Mexico full access to U.S. highways. The plan clearly violated federal laws governing the conduct of pilot programs and the 2001 congressional mandate that required Mexico-domiciled trucking companies to meet U.S. safety standards – such as regulating hours of service, driver training and licensing, and vehicle safety – before they are allowed access to the nation’s roadways.

Shortly after the DOT’s announcement, Gillan testified about safety and legal problems with the plan at a hearing held by the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Members quickly responded by sponsoring legislation to address serious safety and legal concerns. A measure was included in the conference agreement on H.R. 1591, the War Supplemental Appropriations bill, directing the DOT to comply with existing law governing how pilot programs are conducted. 

Starting in October 2006, the safety organizations have tried repeatedly to obtain details about the administration’s plan to open the southern border to long-haul, Mexico-domiciled trucks. On March 13, the groups finally sued the DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to force the agencies to respond to a Freedom of Information request for more details about the secretive program. The agencies had ignored the request for more than six months and refused to release crucial safety information before implementing the program.

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. Following the lawsuit and congressional pressure for more information, 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.

“The administration proposal was a brash attempt to circumvent existing law about how to conduct pilot programs and to freeze out entirely the public and the role of Congress, who by law is supposed to have final approval over the findings of pilot programs,” said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “This bill puts Congress back in the driver’s seat to approve any amendment to existing laws and regulations about opening the southern border to Mexico-domiciled trucks.”

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