WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for thousands of Mexican trucks and buses to begin delivering goods and passengers throughout the United States, ending a decade-long dispute that pitted environmentalists against NAFTA and became a sore point in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Siding with President Bush in their 9-0 ruling, the justices threw out a court order that had blocked the free flow of Mexican trucks on the grounds that the often older diesel-burning vehicles would further pollute areas of California and the Southwest.
Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California said that the nation's pollution laws required U.S. officials to study the impact on the environment before opening the border to older trucks from Mexico.
But the Supreme Court set aside that ruling Monday and said that the president had the power to enforce the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Because the president, not [the motor vehicle regulators], could authorize cross-border operations from Mexican motor carriers, [the chief executive] did not need to consider the environmental effects arising from the entry," said Justice Clarence Thomas in the court's narrow ruling.
The White House welcomed the decision. "The president has been committed to opening the border with our friends to the south in a way that ensures safety and helps American workers," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman.
Monday's ruling is a victory for American and Mexican businesses, both of which say they expect to benefit from lower shipping costs. Trade between the two countries has soared since NAFTA was enacted in 1994. Mexico has become the second-biggest U.S. trading partner with $236 billion in cross-border shipments last year, most of it by truck.
But the ruling was criticized by environmentalists and by truckers on both sides of the border, wary of new competition. Mexico will probably lift its retaliatory ban on U.S. trucks entering Mexico, and small Mexican trucking firms worry they won't be able to compete with modern, efficient and well-financed American fleets. Meanwhile, modest-sized U.S. carriers fear being undercut by low Mexican wages on the American side.
"We don't want them here and they don't want us there," said one U.S. industry official. "The only ones who are going to benefit are the big boys. They are the ones pushing this."
U.S. Department of Transportation officials said it would take as long as a few months to establish an inspection program to ensure that vehicles entering the United States meet federal safety standards. "We'll move as quickly as possible," department spokesman Brian Turmail said.
As many as 34,000 Mexican trucks will operate within the United States once the policy takes effect, the government estimates.
NAFTA mandated the free movement of commercial vehicles across borders. But President Clinton balked at lifting rules that prohibited Mexican trucks from operating north of the border, citing safety and environmental concerns.
In 2001, President Bush announced he would lift the barrier and permit the Mexican trucks and buses to operate in the United States, so long as they complied with federal safety standards.
"The decision to open our borders is long overdue," said Thomas J. Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We have no credibility calling on other countries to fulfill their trade commitments if we refuse to honor our own trade promises."
But environmentalists and public health officials called the ruling a defeat for clean air and warned of more pollution and more asthma cases among children, particularly in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston.
About 4.5 million trucks cross the border from Mexico to the United States each year. However, they may not go beyond a 20-mile limit. Their cargoes are transferred to American vehicles and shipped to their final destination. The same process happens on the Mexican side.
The new policy will allow licensed trucks from south of the border to ship their loads anywhere north of the border.
"They can load up cargo in Mexico City and deliver it to Portland, Maine," said David C. Vladeck, a lawyer for Public Citizen, which opposed Bush's order.
Pollution standards for trucks depend on when they were built. Although new trucks in the United States and in Mexico must meet stringent air safety standards, the Mexican fleet has more trucks made before tighter standards were set in 1993.
The ruling marked the second time in six weeks that the high court dealt a setback to air-quality regulators in California. On April 28, the court struck down rules that required buyers of new buses, garbage trucks, airport shuttles and other fleet vehicles in the Los Angeles area to choose clean-burning engines.