March 16, 2009 3:30 AM, EDT

Obama Signs Law Ending Mexican Truck Plan but Seeks New Legislation to Open Border

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the March 16 print edition of Transport Topics.

President Obama signed legislation last week that killed the Transportation Department’s controversial test of longhaul cross-border trucking with Mexico, but the administration signaled it was open to resurrecting a program in the future.

Even so, officials representing Mexico and the country’s trucking industry said they may move ahead on possible retribution to force the border open.

A provision of a $410 billion spending bill prevents DOT from using any money in the 2009 fiscal year to “establish, implement, continue, promote or in any way permit” a cross-border trucking program with Mexico.

However, shortly after Obama signed the bill on March 10, DOT released a statement saying the president asked the agency “to work with the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of State, along with leaders in Congress and Mexican officials to propose legislation creating a new trucking project that will meet the legitimate concerns of Congress and our [North American Free Trade Agreement] commitments.”

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s project “ill-conceived [and] risky,” but left the door open to a new program.

“We’re looking forward to working with the Obama administration to develop a program which is consistent with safety on our roads,” Oberstar said.

However, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing highway issues, said that legislation to restart the program was “not on my priority list.”

“They said they wanted to meet the concerns of Congress,” DeFazio said of DOT’s desire to work to restart the program, “and given the state of affairs in Mexico, it would be a long time and take a lot of work on the Mexican side of the border to meaningfully address our concerns.”

Among those concerns, he said, are a lack of licensing databases, as well as lax hours-of-service and drug and alcohol enforcement.

Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said the country “deplores” the move to end the program.

“This decision is not, and has never been, about the safety of America’s roads,” Alday said. “It is protectionism, plain and simple. . . . By defunding the program, some members of Congress are preventing the administration from upholding its interna-

tional trade obligations; ignoring the facts and exploiting fear against the best interests of both our peoples.”

Alday said the issue “has been festering for over 14 years,” since President Clinton issued a moratorium in 1994, blocking Mexican trucks from delivering in the United States.

“The 2007 establishment of the demonstration program was a compromise and a solid first step that allowed the United States to begin to move towards compliance with its international obligations,” Alday said.

He added that under NAFTA, “the Mexican government will shortly be identifying and implementing next steps, in light of the United States Congress’ noncompliance with U.S. international trade obligations.”

Alday told Transport Topics that, in light of the program’s end, U.S. trucks no longer would be allowed into Mexico.

Separately, Mark Maney, an attorney representing Camara Nacional del Autotranporte de Carga, or Canacar — Mexico’s principal trucking group — said the group was “moving forward” with a lawsuit seeking damages from the United States over the border closure.

In May, Canacar said it intended to file a claim under NAFTA and seek monetary damages from the United States over the re-fusal to admit Mexican trucks (click here for previous Premium Content story).

Interest groups opposed to Mexican trucks’ coming into the United States said they were not concerned about the possibility that the Obama administration would reopen the border.

Leslie Miller, a Teamsters union spokeswoman, said there are “clear legal standards for both cross-border trucking and FMCSA pilot programs, so we think any new program must meet those standards and we don’t think it is possible right now for a program to meet those standards.”

“Our feeling is that when Mexico fulfills its end of the bargain, which is basically, ‘raise your standards to our level,’ that’s when we can have a cross-border trucking program,” she said.