Court Set to Rule on NAFTA Truck Row

By DAVID GREENBERG
Staff Reporter

Federal trucking regulators will decide as early as next week whether to comply with a court order that would delay the opening of U.S. highways to Mexican truckers by another 18 months, or appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court potentially leading to a quicker opening of the border.

The federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which wants to open the border to comply with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, was ordered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in January to conduct a new environmental impact report studying the effects of Mexican truckers using U.S. highways. The court ruled that an earlier EIR was inadequate.

Despite passage nearly a decade ago of the landmark treaty between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the U.S. trucking industry has successfully fought entry of Mexican trucks.

Under terms of the amended treaty, Mexican truckers should have been allowed to begin hauling goods into the United States by 2000. (They are currently restricted to the area 20 miles north of the border.)

But the federal government, under intense pressure from trucking and insurance interests, has never fully implemented the provisions.

"The feeling is that the U.S. government is not doing what both countries agreed to do with Nafta," said Herminio Hernandez, one of 10 U.S.-based commissioners for the Mexican Bank for Foreign Trade.

"The labor in Mexico is cheaper than the United States for any kind of industry," he added. "How can you argue (against implementation) for the transportation industry only?"

Mexican government officials estimate total losses to be $1 billion over the past decade. In retaliation, Mexican Economy Secretary Fernando Canales wants to impose sanctions against the U.S. importing certain unspecified goods into Mexico, Hernandez said.

Safety, environmental concerns

U.S. truckers have based their arguments against Nafta on safety, environmental and competitive grounds.

Mexican truck companies are not saddled with business taxes, workers' compensation insurance or cleaner-burning fuels, meaning they can leverage lower overhead to undercut local hauling rates, the truckers argue.

"Philosophically, we are not opposed to competition or the removal of trade barriers when there is a level playing field," said Gary Smith, West Coast representative for the port division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "The problem is Nafta has little safeguard for those kind of protections."

In the most recent court ruling, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO won a temporary injunction against opening the borders on Jan. 16, when the appeals court ruled that the previous EIR dealing with Mexican truck emissions was "woefully inadequate." Potential safety hazards are another area of concern.

A new EIR would take about a year to 18 months complete.

"If the analysis showed there would not be a significant environmental impact, then presumably we could permit commercial motor vehicles domiciled in Mexico to operate throughout the United States," said Andy Beck, a spokesman for the Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the federal Transportation Department.

Industry officials are also afraid that Mexican companies will use Nafta to take business at the port and other short-haul markets and charge lower rates.

"(The treaty) is a nice thing to say, but there's no enforcement," said Stephanie Williams, vice president of the California Trucking Association. "There's no regulatory body that looks at the loads hauled."

The estimated 12,000 drivers that work the ports are paid between $80 and $150 to haul a container to a regional destination wages trucking companies claim have remained flat for years and currently offer only a razor-thin profit margin.

A reported 1,500 applications from Mexican truckers who want to drive on U.S. freeways are currently sitting in DOT files.

The agency has promised regional trucking interests that Mexican drivers won't be approved unless they comply with Nafta guidelines and statewide environmental regulations. But those assurances aren't enough to placate the concerns of local truckers.

"In the port drayage industry, there's a longstanding problem caused by illegal operations undercutting legitimate motor carriers," Smith said.

Bad tires, brakes

Highway safety is also an issue.

Random border checks reveal that half the Mexican trucks have safety problems, such as bad tires and brakes.

And drivers are often exhausted from driving longer continuous hours than the maximum 10 hours allowed under U.S. law.

Michael Belzer, associate professor of industrial relations at Wayne State University in Detroit, claims that many Mexican truckers take amphetamines to stay awake during long hauls.

"Under the treaty, the Mexican driver only has to obey Mexican law up until the time he crosses into the U.S.," he said. "There is no policy in place to ensure there would be safe operations of Mexican trucks."

Such allegations and legal maneuvering are smokescreens, Mexican officials say.

"It's just an argument that is part of the resistance to permit the access of Mexican trucks and drivers into the United States," said Hernandez, adding that Mexican drivers consume coffee, not amphetamines, to stay awake.

"The argument of the Mexican government is to let the trucks that already comply with environmental and safety regulations to come into the United States now."

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