Political pileup on Mexican trucks; Mineta must facilitate

By Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday 19 July 2001

Washington—Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, the lone Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet, came under fire yesterday from his former colleagues as he defended the administration's push to open the U.S. border to Mexican trucks.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who served with Mineta when he represented San Jose in the House, said she was aghast at hearing Mineta's inspector general testify that U.S. inspectors couldn't just send an unsafe Mexican truck back in one instance because the truck had no brakes.

When Inspector General Kenneth Mead also noted that some Mexican drivers picked up one-day auto insurance at the border to meet U.S. law, Boxer retorted, That's very interesting.

Sometimes at hearings you feel better, Boxer said. I feel worse. . . . This is a nightmare, and we are not ready for this.

But Mineta insisted the Bush administration was beefing up its border inspection capacity and would be ready to ensure that Mexican trucks met U.S. safety requirements by Jan. 1, when the truckers gain greater access to U.S. highways.

I am doing my best, Mineta told the Senate Commerce Committee, which called the hearing at Boxer's request. When very little was done in the past, we are trying to get the resources and people to make sure safety—our paramount interest—is adhered to.

The issue of allowing Mexican trucks over the border is a toxic political stew that mixes the North American Free Trade Agreement, highway safety, the Teamsters union, relations between Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, and charges of racial stereotyping.

Current U.S. law requires Mexican carriers to unload their cargo at the border and transfer the freight to U.S. trucks. Mexican trucks may operate only within a 20-mile commercial zone in four states, including California. NAFTA calls for allowing Mexican carriers to take their cargo directly to U.S. destinations, but does not permit them to haul between points in the states.

The four border states were to be opened in their entirety in 1995, followed by the rest of the country last year. But with an election looming and the Teamsters lobbying heavily, the Clinton administration refused. In February, a NAFTA arbitration panel found the United States in violation of its treaty obligations.

The issue has now landed in the lap of Mineta, Bush's point man for making sure the border opens to Mexican trucks, a key aim of Fox. Bush is avidly seeking warmer relations with Mexico and has invited Fox to his first dinner for a head of state in September.

But the fight pits Mineta against his former Democratic colleagues, who want to bar admission of the trucks, arguing that they are unsafe.

While California's safety inspections were touted as the best in the nation,

Inspector General Mead said crossings in Texas and Arizona were not always attended, and violations were much higher.

Last year, 37 percent of Mexican trucks inspected were placed out of service because they had serious safety violations, Mead said, down from 44 percent in 1997. Safety violations include defective brakes, frames, steering and tires.


But Mead also noted that one out of four U.S. trucks that were inspected were also placed out of service, adding that last year 5,300 people had died in U.S. truck crashes.

Teamsters President James Hoffa dismissed charges that Mexico's trucks had been blocked as a political favor to the Teamsters. . . . We read the inspector general's report.

Hoffa said the union looked forward to working with our Mexican brothers and sisters on working conditions in Mexico.

Rather than opening the border to comply with NAFTA, Hoffa said, Bush should allow Mexico to retaliate by blocking U.S. exports to Mexico.

Shippers support opening the border, saying transferring freight between trucks is costly and unnecessary. Edward Emmett, president of the National Industrial Transportation League, called charges that Mexican trucks were unsafe a blanket judgment that borders on racial profiling of an entire nation.

I don't think it's fair to tell a Mexican truck owner who meets all the criteria that just because he's Mexican, he's not allowed to do it, Emmett said.


Resistance to opening the border is strong in Congress. The House voted recently to block Mineta from processing Mexican truck applications, and rejected his request for $88.2 million for more inspectors. Mineta said Bush would veto the measure. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to tighten the administration's inspection plans. Mineta did not promise a veto, but called some of the requirements unduly costly and more than what we really have to do.

Mineta said the administration would upgrade its inspection requirements, including physical inspections of Mexican trucks and a safety review before carriers get an 18-month permit to operate on U.S. highways. Mineta said the department would hire enough inspectors to staff all 27 border crossings and would require Mexican truckers to pass a safety audit before getting a permanent license.

Mineta dismissed a chart Boxer produced comparing U.S. and Mexican truck safety standards, saying that the United States could not impose its own laws in other countries.

Our laws do not apply in Mexico, but our laws do apply to Mexican trucks coming in, Mineta said.