Sen. Dorgan Tells Peters DOT is ‘Arrogant’ for Refusing to Block Cross-Border Funding

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the March 10 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that her department was “arrogant” in its refusal to go along with what he said Congress intended when it prohibited funding for the DOT’s controversial U.S.-Mexico border trucking program.

At a recent hearing on DOT’s budget, Dorgan said, “I supported Secretary Peters’ nomination, but now I’m regretting I did.”

Dorgan, a vocal critic of the program since it was announced last year, wrote a section of the DOT budget bill that he intended would block funding for the cross-border trucking program. The pilot program allows up to 100 Mexican carriers to deliver in the United States and a similar number of U.S. fleets to deliver in Mexico. Most trucks are permitted to carry loads only to a narrow commercial zone at the border.

The dispute between Congress and Peters turns on the word “establish.” Dorgan’s provision prohibited DOT from spending any money in 2009 to “establish” a cross-border pilot project.

Peters said DOT’s lawyers maintain the provision prevents the agency from starting another, new cross-border program but doesn’t do anything about the existing pilot program under way since September.

“It is our interpretation that the word ‘establish’ means to not start a new program, but does not prevent us from operating a program,” Peters said during the Feb. 28 hearing. “We are not implementing a program; we’re not establishing a program; we’re continuing a program that was established prior.”

DOT began its yearlong demonstration of longhaul cross-border trucking in September. To date, 16 Mexican carriers have enrolled in the program, with a total of 55 trucks, while five U.S. trucking companies with 45 trucks have joined.

Dorgan said the Senate’s legislative counsel, as well as other legal scholars, disagrees with DOT’s interpretation of the law.

“And you insist that it doesn’t matter what that says, you’ve got a lawyer that says that it’s legal,” Dorgan said. “Well, there are lawyers in this administration that tell us torture is legal. That doesn’t make those lawyers right. Those lawyers are disserving you, Madam Secretary.”

Dorgan continued to hammer Peters and DOT’s decision to continue the program. He called the agency’s interpretation “cute,” but added, “Everybody understood what the congressional intent was. I think it’s an arrogant thing for the department to hang its clothes here on a lawyer that’s not supportable,” Dorgan said.

He told Peters, “I hope that you will rethink that before March 11,” when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has scheduled a hearing on the issue.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court in San Francisco is considering the case and heard arguments between government attorneys and opponents of the program Feb. 12.

(Click here for previous coverage.)