Potentially unsafe Mexican-domiciled trucks could be entering and passing through the U.S. as early as today under the Bush administration’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pilot program.
In a decision filed Aug. 31, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied an emergency motion to halt the program, after which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) established Sep. 6 as the projected program commencement date.
Rush Leaves Safety Behind
Program commencement was delayed a day when the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General (IG) failed to issue an audit findings report, a legal condition precedent to program initiation, as expected on Sep. 5. Instead, late last night in a conference call, originally set for 4 p.m. then stealthily rescheduled to 9:00 p.m., the Bush administration announced its plans to proceed with the pilot program, allowing Mexico-domiciled trucks to enter the U.S. starting immediately.
Under the program the U.S.-Mexico border will be open to as many as 100 Mexico-domiciled carriers with government permission to operate beyond the current 20-mile commercial border zone. No more than 25 carriers per month can be granted operating authority. The pilot program has a scheduled 12-month duration, after which the borders could be fully opened outside of the commercial zone to registered Mexico-domiciled carriers.
FMCSA reports that in the first month alone, 17 Mexico-domiciled carriers will have operational authority to run numerous trucks throughout the U.S. The Bush administration initiated this program to operate as a test run, allowing FMCSA to gather safety data about Mexico-domiciled carrier performance on U.S. roads as they pass through the U.S., rather than requiring comprehensive safety data before project commencement.
Report Outlines Key Deficiencies
The IG cited three crucial areas of concern in his audit report. The report stated that as of July 2007:
- FMCSA had failed to proffer complete program implementation plans with site-specific details.
- State officials responsible for enforcement of program requirements lacked complete understanding. Twenty-six states cited at least one important implementation concern, with the most commonly cited issue relating to language fluency requirements.
- FMCSA inexplicably adopted language in drafting some inspection, licensing and safety regulations that differed from federal statutory requirements.
FMCSA responded that it has initiated the policy of checking “every vehicle, every time” a program participant crosses into the U.S. Proof of this policy, however, consists of scant ‘site specific’ plans consisting of less than three pages each. It also noted it does not believe that its chosen language variation of checking only “available” trucks will compromise safety, and stated that it issued guidance and would provide training to remedy lack of state understanding.
Opposition All Around
Opening our borders in the face of insufficient inspection facilities and carrier safety performance data showcases the Bush administration’s persistent disregard for public safety and federal law requirements. The Bush administration has for years been pushing to give Mexico-domiciled carriers access to all U.S. highways despite safety and environmental concerns expressed by public interest groups, unions representing truck drivers and lawmakers.
The Bush Administration pressed forward last night in face of blatant opposition, as several U.S.-domiciled carriers yesterday protested the program at border facilities in California and Texas.
Lawmakers have also expressed strong opposition to the program, also seemingly ignored by the Bush administration. Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar and Representative Peter DeFazio both issued scathing criticisms regarding the program’s implementation due to remaining safety concerns. Yesterday DeFazio, along with other members of Congress, citizens and safety advocates urged the Bush administration to abandon the program to no avail.
After FMCSA, in a federal release dated Aug. 17, announced its intent to pursue the program despite the overwhelming opposition, five groups including Public Citizen filed suit in federal court to compel adequate safety considerations and compliance with a federal law passed in May. That suit, unaffected by the emergency stay denial, is currently pending in federal court. Until that decision however, and as the borders are opened today, the safety of our highways will be compromised under the pilot program, as the Bush administration uses our roads as a testing ground for international policy concerns.