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May 7, 2007 7:50 AM, EDT

House Panel Imposes New Border Limits

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter
This story appears in the May 7 print edition of Transport Topics.
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WASHINGTON — The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee moved to put new limits on the Bush administration’s plans to open the U.S. border to Mexican trucks, and the panel’s chairman warned the Transportation Department not to go forward with its plans.
The bill, approved 66-0 in a rare recorded vote on May 2, would stiffen the requirements DOT must meet to proceed with its pilot program to allow some Mexican trucks into the United States.
“This language does not prohibit the program,” Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the committee, told reporters after the bill passed. “It just raises the bar on oversight and makes it a much safer program.”
The bill addresses “bipartisan” concerns raised in an April committee hearing on the issue, said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the subcommittee on highways and transit (3-19, p. 5).
“We are embodying in this legislation a number of those concerns,” DeFazio said.
According to the committee, the bill would limit the pilot program to 100 Mexican carriers and 1,000 trucks, restrict it to three years and require oversight by the DOT Inspector General and an independent review panel. It also would require DOT to publish more details of the program, including results of all its safety audits of Mexican carriers, the process for evaluating the success of the test and how DOT might expel Mexican fleets from the program.
The bill would require the inspector general to certify in advance that DOT has met all 22 conditions Congress set in 2001.
In February, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced plans to open the border to Mexican trucks, to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement (3-5, p. 1).
“Compliance with NAFTA does not mean that we open the border without any scrutiny of the process,” said Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), ranking minority member of the highways subcommittee.
After the committee vote, DOT issued a statement asserting the current program maintained safety standards and should not be delayed.
“The department spent more than five years working to meet conditions Congress placed on cross-border trucking in 2001 and has met every condition placed on the program,” DOT said. “The current plan ensures the safety of our highways while creating new economic opportunity for American businesses and lower costs for American consumers. It is time to stop delaying a program that will be good for the American economy and implement the law that Congress passed 14 years ago.”
However, Oberstar warned that DOT should put its plan on hold until Congress has a chance to weigh in.
“I think they’d be well-advised not to because there’s this pending legislation that would just simply roll back what they’ve done,” he said.
A number of industry officials said the vote was a strong indication of the opposition to the program.
“While this is not the approach we would like to have seen taken in addressing the problem of ensuring reciprocal treatment of U.S. carriers operating in Mexico, the vote by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — both overwhelming and bipartisan — is a clear indication of the challenges facing the NAFTA process,” said Tim Lynch, senior vice president for strategic planning and federation relations for American Trucking Associations.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said the vote was “a stunning repudiation of the Bush administration’s attempt to force open the border to potentially dangerous trucks before addressing significant safety concerns.”
Oberstar said he would like to get the bill to the House floor “as soon as the House leader can schedule it” but that the “window is getting smaller” because Congress soon will begin taking up a number of the annual spending bills.
If the bill can’t be acted on alone, Oberstar said it may go into the bill funding the Department of Transportation for the 2008 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Last week, President Bush vetoed an emergency war spending bill that included restrictions on the Mexican truck pilot program, but Oberstar said he didn’t think this bill could be included in a new version of that legislation because “that looks like it’s getting narrower as it goes along.”