Mexican Trucking Plan Under NAFTA

The Bush Administration is ready to push ahead with a free trade plan to open America's borders and its highways to trucks from Mexico beyond their current 20 mile limit. . As Todd Zwillich reports from Washington, the plan has some truckers and safety experts worried.

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Every year three million commercial trucks roll through this inspection station on I-95 in Virginia about 25 miles south of Washington DC. It's roughly the same number that rolled over the Mexican border into Texas last year. It's where state highway authorities inspect trucks and their drivers to make sure both are safe.

"Put the two tires together, then strap em together and strap em down. This ain't safe. This is out of service here."

For the second time in six years, the White House is set to push ahead with its plan to let Mexican trucks drive anywhere in Texas…or America.

And for the second time in six years, American truckers are furious. Jim Fitzgerald owns and operates his own rig. He says he's not against free trade, as long as it's fair. But he says the bottom line is that that Mexican truckers make less money.

"That's gonna hurt us. The guys who've been doing it for 30 years like me. They work cheaper than we do. It makes our rates drop in the States. And that's about what I got to say about that."

Truckers are upset. But manufacturers and shipping firms with Mexican operations are excited by the prospect of hiring one driver instead of two for shipments into the U.S. Mexico is the U.S.'s second largest trading partner.

On Capitol Hill, wages are an issue. But so is safety. Federal and Texas authorities are supposed to have access to a Mexican database tracking safety violations. But the system has faced questions from government auditors Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn is one of many lawmakers of both parties who are uneasy about the plan.

"My main concern is public safety and that needs to be certain, and is non-negotiable."

Bill Quaid heads the program at the US Department of Transportation. He says it's limited to 100 Mexican companies and about 1000 trucks. And that safety will not be compromised.

"Nothing in this program is going to exempt the Mexican carriers from any of our regulations"

It's the states that handle trucking safety inspections. Mike Rogers is in charge of border vehicle inspection for the state of Texas. He says the agency does cursory inspections on a quarter of trucks coming in from Mexico.

"We only conduct a more thorough inspection of only about 3 to 5% of vehicles that cross the border"

Back on I-95, the inspections continue. Station chief Ezra Randle says he's nervous that his inspectors can't guarantee the foreign trucks they send out on the roads are safe.

"We just can't vouch for the same standards for any driver coming from outside the country. The law isn't the same, not even the testing is the same."

Congress will do more negotiating over a possible delay in the coming weeks. Federal transportation officials say they are pressing ahead under orders from the White House.

"For Houston Public Radio, I'm Todd Zwillich in Washington."