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May 26, 2014 2:15 AM, EDT

Low Interest by Mexican Truckers Threatens Plan to Open Border

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 26 print edition of Transport Topics.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The cross-border trucking pilot program has had so little participation that federal regulators may not be able to determine if Mexican carriers are as safe as U.S. carriers, several members of an advisory panel said here last week.

The narrow range of safety data available may not portend well for the future of whether Mexican trucks will be able to continue hauling freight north beyond the border commercial zone.

The program, which ends Oct. 14, is intended to evaluate whether the United States should continue to allow Mexican trucks to travel into the U.S. interior.

“I’m stunned by how little interest there has been in the program,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, interviewed after a May 21 meeting of the Cross-Border Subcommittee of the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee on which he sits.

After hearing that only two of the 13 carriers in the program have generated most of the inspections and made the most border crossings, Todd Spencer, another panel member, told Transport Topics, “You can conclude two things: Clearly, it’s not representative of what the industry experience would be. It also shows that there simply isn’t much interest.”

Spencer is executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which unsuccessfully challenged the pilot program in federal court.

The subcommittee, which reports to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration chief Anne Ferro, must submit a report by September evaluating whether the agency met its objective. That will determine whether Mexican carriers can deliver safely to U.S. destinations.

Originally, FMCSA said it needed 46 motor carriers to be given operating authority to properly evaluate the safety aspects of the program that began in October 2011.

Just two Mexican carriers enrolled in the three-year cross-border pilot have so far received nearly 83% of the total number of inspections given to all 13 carriers in the program. It’s causing growing concern among members of the panel that the congressionally mandated program cannot be properly evaluated when it ends.

Of the 4,864 inspections given to the 13 carriers approved for the program, mostly at border entry, Servicio de Transporte Internacional y Local received 2,759 and GCC Transportes got 1,274, according to the latest numbers from FMCSA.

The same two carriers also have made 87% of the 18,938 border crossings the agency has documented.

With a representative sample lacking for all 13 carriers in the program, Lannen said he is concerned that a proper safety assessment might not be possible.

“We may have learned something about two companies, but how is that going to be a help in terms of representation of the entire potential industry?”

“We have real good data on two Mexican carriers,” subcommittee member Henry Jasny told TT. “We can say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on what their operations might look like. Other than those two carriers, we don’t really know a lot.”

Jasny is general counsel of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

OOIDA’s Spencer said it has become clear to him that the uneven inspection and border-crossing numbers will not allow FMCSA to answer the question of whether Mexican carriers are safe operators.

Mexican carriers given operating authority are permitted to carry freight into the United States beyond the roughly 25-mile commercial trading zone along the border.

While the pilot has fallen far short of the number of carriers expected to participate, it already has surpassed its goal of the carriers receiving at least 4,100 inspections collectively. However, it was hoped that the inspections and border crossings could be spread more evenly among all participants.

Congress suspended an earlier cross-border pilot in 2009, and Mexico retaliated by imposing tariffs on $2.3 billion in American goods. They were lifted when the current pilot began in 2011.

As of May 11, there are 55 vehicles and 62 drivers approved for the program. The 13 carriers have logged a total 924,000 miles in border states and 194,000 miles in states beyond, said Bill Quade, associate administrator for FMCSA.

He declined to comment on whether the data that have been collected will be adequate to complete a reliable safety assessment.

“We’re looking at that now,” he said.

Subcommittee chairman Janice Mulanix, an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol, said she wants to see more data before commenting.

Mulanix said the subcommittee plans to meet again in July to discuss additional information members are requesting from FMCSA.

“What we’re trying to do today is identify all the information we need to really evaluate this program,” Mulanix said.