Mineta said he understood the message that Congress would insist on "a rigorous, effective safety program in place prior to implementing the truck and bus access provisions" of NAFTA. He said the department would try to balance the safety issue with nondiscrimination concerns.
"Safety is the Department of Transportation's highest priority, and we will not sacrifice safety to implement (NAFTA's) trucking and bus provisions," Mineta said.
He said Mexican truckers who want to operate in the United States would have to have their vehicles meet the safety requirements that apply to U.S. and Canadian carriers. But he said the United States also had to comply with the trade agreement. Mexican trucks that would operate in the United States would have to be guaranteed the same standards of fairness and protection offered to U.S. and Canadian trucks.
"President Bush and I will insist on full compliance with our safety laws," he said. "But we will not accept enforcement requirements that create a de facto system that unfairly discriminates against Mexican drivers and carriers."
In the administration's budget request for fiscal 2002, Mineta asked for an increase in funds to prepare for the new cross-border traffic supposed to start in January. The department requested $88.2 million in additional funds, including $13.9 million to hire 80 more federal inspectors to perform safety inspections. There currently are 60 inspectors assigned to the southern border. The number of state inspectors also is expected to double.
"With this increase, a combined state and federal enforcement staff will total an impressive 496 inspectors," Mineta said.
The department will build permanent inspection facilities and areas to park trucks that are out-of-service for safety violations. It also wants to help Mexican truckers understand the application of U.S. law and regulations. Seminars in U.S. border states as well as in Mexico in the fall will be aimed at translating and distributing educational materials to Mexican drivers. The Mexican carriers will be required to provide detailed information showing the vehicle complies with U.S. safety regulations.
When a safety review is completed, the carrier would be granted a 18-month permit.
After sufficient data had been accumulated on a given carrier and a successful safety audit carried out, the Mexican carrier would be given a permanent operating permit.
"Eighteen months is far too long to wait for verification of a company's compliance and safety record," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, an organization with a stated mission of defending the rights and safety of consumers. "During this time unaudited Mexican carriers can continue to operate throughout the U.S."
Claybrook recommended on-site safety reviews of Mexican carriers before granting the carriers operating authority.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she would support restrictive legislation to give adequate time and resources to ensure safety at the border.
"With 23 percent of all NAFTA trucks driving through California, I am very concerned that the Bush administration is nowhere near ready for truck inspections at the California-Mexico border," she said.