September 12, 2011 7:45 AM, EDT

Mexico Trucking Plan Faces Delay

Audit Finds FMCSA Not Ready to Open Border
Editor’s Note: After this issue went to press, the Department of Transportation said it will take public comments on safety reviews of Mexican carriers through Sept. 22.

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 12 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Obama administration’s contentious cross-border trucking program with Mexico could be delayed until November after a Department of Transportation audit found that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has failed to set up several procedures aimed at monitoring and inspecting trucks that would enter the United States.

And in a related development, the Teamsters union and Public Citizen advocacy group filed a lawsuit claiming that FMCSA has broken several laws that would ensure that Mexican trucks meet U.S. safety standards.

Among the as-yet-unmet requirements set by Congress is a plan for conducting on-site safety audits and compliance reviews of Mexican fleets before they are authorized to deliver to U.S. destinations, DOT’s inspector general said in its report, released Sept. 6.

FMCSA also has failed to complete site-specific plans for checking drivers and trucks at the border, establish a system to verify driver and truck eligibility, acquire electronic monitoring devices for Mexican trucks and train inspection personnel at the border and within the United States, the IG said.

“Without strong controls and processes to monitor the safety performance of Mexico-domiciled motor carriers with longhaul operating authority, FMCSA cannot ensure that the current level of safety on the nation’s highways will be maintained,” the IG audit said.

“Although FMCSA has taken positive actions to improve monitoring of Mexican drivers and trucks, it has not yet addressed certain issues for implementing the pilot program,” said the report.

An agency spokeswoman said Sept. 8 that “FMCSA looks forward to launching a new cross-border trucking program within the next 30 to 60 days that puts safety first.”

Originally, FMCSA had been planning to begin the program as early as last month.

In its audit report, the IG said FMCSA has not yet finished its plans for nor identified the process it will use to comply with five requirements to conduct 50% of preauthorization safety audits and compliance reviews in Mexico.

Among other issues, the pre-authorization safety audits require FMCSA to evaluate participating Mexican motor carriers’ safety inspection, maintenance, and repair facilities or management systems, including verification of records of periodic vehicle inspections, the IG audit said.

In a written response to the inspector general, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said the agency already has completed many actions identified in the audit and is working hard to complete all 34 requirements imposed by Congress.

The cross-border agreement, signed on July 6, would end a dispute over requirements of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that Mexican trucks be allowed to deliver freight throughout the United States (7-11, p. 1). The agreement also would allow U.S. truckers to deliver to the interior of Mexico.

The agreement would end $2.4 billion in annual retaliatory tariffs Mexico imposed on 89 U.S. products shipped to Mexico after Congress shut down a similar pilot project in 2009.

An FMCSA spokeswoman said the agency was making progress on fulfilling the requirements Congress set for the cross-border trucking project.

“The OIG’s recommendations line up well with the work that FMCSA has already undertaken on the implementation of policies, procedures and training necessary for the program,” said the spokeswoman, Candice Tolliver Burns. She said that FMCSA is conducting 50% of the preauthorization safety audits and full compliance reviews on participating Mexican trucking companies in Mexico.

“Additionally, FMCSA’s enhanced Query Central System gives state law enforcement access to data on Mexican drivers and vehicles authorized to operate within the United States,” Burns said.

“Further, FMCSA will be ready to install electronic monitoring devices on all participating Mexican vehicles to ensure full driver compliance with federal hours-of-service rules. This equipment will be used to identify participating vehicles before they cross the border and as they travel in the United States,” she said.

The Teamsters-Public Citizen lawsuit, filed Sept. 2, sought a review of the pilot project by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit alleges that FMCSA breaks the law by “waiving a law that trucks must display certain proof that they meet federal safety standards” and by not requiring the program “to achieve an equivalent level of safety because Mexican drivers don’t have to meet the same physical requirements as U.S. drivers,” said a Teamsters Sept. 2 statement.

“Congress has repeatedly and overwhelmingly set stringent safety conditions for any cross-border trucking program, and this one clearly doesn’t meet those conditions,” Teamsters General President James Hoffa said in a statement.

The Teamsters also said U.S. truckers will not have the same access to Mexico that Mexican fleets will have to the United States because there is a limited availability in Mexico of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel required by U.S. trucks made since 2007.

The Teamsters criticized the cross-border pilot because they believe it will take jobs away from American truckers. “The last thing America needs right now is a guest worker program on wheels,” Hoffa said.