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Deal Struck on Mexico Truckers' Access to U.S.

NAFTA: Accord by lawmakers, White House resolves politically sensitive provision of 1993 treaty.

November 29, 2001|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators and the White House reached agreement Wednesday on a measure that would give Mexican truckers wider access to the United States and remove a politically troublesome obstacle to President Bush's efforts to improve relations with Mexico.

The accord, proponents said, would ensure rigorous safety checks of Mexican trucks on U.S. roads, a demand by lawmakers from both parties that had threatened to stall implementation of a provision of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Among other provisions, the deal calls for federal inspections of half of all Mexican trucks seeking to operate in the United States and, in most cases, verifying licenses of Mexican truckers crossing the border.

"We are pleased that we have reached an agreement on Mexican trucks that retains the critical safety principles that are so important to the American people," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who helped negotiate the agreement as chairwoman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee. "This is a victory for safety, for trade, and for both our countries."

The agreement also clears the way for congressional approval of the $60-billion annual transportation funding bill. The White House had threatened to veto the bill, which included safety requirements for Mexican trucks that the administration contended would have violated NAFTA.

A White House official said the accord "achieves the president's twin goals of assuring the safety of Mexican trucks operating in the United States, and honoring our NAFTA trade obligations."

Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox have concurred that upholding the NAFTA provision allowing Mexican trucks to cross the border is crucial to U.S.-Mexico relations.

Currently, Mexican trucks are confined to a roughly 20-mile zone north of the border, beyond which goods must be transferred to U.S. rigs. A NAFTA arbitration panel ruled earlier this year that the United States is violating the treaty by arbitrarily denying access to Mexican trucks.

Although the Bush administration offered a plan to beef up border inspections, the House and Senate moved last summer to require Mexican truck haulers to undergo more rigorous safety reviews.

Murray said the agreement would:

* Require electronic verification of the license of every Mexican truck driver crossing the border who is carrying high-risk cargo, and verification of at least half of all other Mexican truckers every time they cross the border.

* Subject Mexican trucking firms to rigorous on-site inspections before their trucks are allowed on American highways, and require every Mexican truck to undergo a physical inspection every 90 days to operate in the U.S.

* Allow Mexican trucks to cross the border only at border crossings where inspectors are on duty and there is adequate capacity to conduct safety enforcement activities.

* Require comprehensive safety tests of Mexican trucking firms before they are granted conditional authority and allowed into the United States. These safety exams verify that Mexican trucking firms have a drug- and alcohol-testing program, proof of insurance, and drivers with clean driving records.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, unions and other groups have expressed concern about loosening border restrictions.

Critics of the proposal had also raised safety concerns, citing government figures that showed that 37% of all Mexican trucks were taken out of service because of safety violations including defective brakes and bad tires. In California, 27% of Mexican trucks inspected were ordered off the road in fiscal 2000.

Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had objected that the requirements that the Senate sought to impose on Mexican truckers were too restrictive, expressed support for the agreement, expected to be approved by a House-Senate conference committee today.

"The administration has bent over backward to address every legitimate safety concern about Mexican trucks and has won an agreement that will allow the border to open in a timely manner, consistent with our obligations under NAFTA, while protecting the safety of the American traveling public," they said in a joint statement.

Rather than impose a costly "one-size-fits-all requirement" to perform on-site inspections of every Mexican carrier, they said, the U.S. Department of Transportation will have greater flexibility to target on-site inspections where concerns have been identified.

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