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Debate rages, but deluge of Mexican truck traffic appears inevitable

June 30, 2002|By APARNA H. KUMAR

Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Every day some 1,000 trucks trundle through the Calexico border inspection facility at 1700 E. Carr Road.

And the traffic is bound to increase once President Bush lifts the ban on long-haul trucks from Mexico as agreed upon in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

‘‘There's rumors that we may be expanding,'' said California Highway Patrol Officer Frank Fernandez, who works at the station, where trucks are randomly screened for such violations as faulty brakes and lights and drunken drivers. ‘‘The (U.S.) Department of Transportation is hiring a lot of employees to work in this area, but that's separate from us.'' The Highway Patrol operates under the state Department of Transportation.

His words have the tightlipped uncertainty of a man standing on a dam that may be about to overflow.

But, as the Bush administration prepares to open the border to trucks, unleashing the deluge, a group of senators is trying to put the brakes on the plan again after losing the battle late last year, saying Mexican trucks don't measure to up to basic U.S. safety standards.

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Those who favor allowing Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways accuse the small group of senators of opposing the plan due to pressure from trucker's unions, which fear a loss of jobs to Mexican trucking companies.

Proponents of the president's plan also accuse the senators of racism and using faulty data.

According to a Department of Transportation report presented before a Senate panel Thursday, Mexican trucks crossing the border are 50 percent more likely than American trucks to be pulled off the road for safety violations. Those are just the trucks that are caught.

Proponents of the president's plan argue that the Mexican trucks pulled off the road are mostly the shuttle trucks that cross the border from maquiladoras to U.S. warehouses, not the expensive trucks that Mexican trucking companies would send on long trips to Los Angeles or Canada.

Because border inspection facilities are understaffed and underequipped across most of the border, many unsafe trucks may still slip through, according to a DOT audit. Only two of the country's 25 commercial crossings have permanent truck inspection facilities and both are in California.

Indeed, among the border states, California often is cited as the leader in enforcing cross-border trucking safety standards.

The Calexico facility specifically is regarded as one of the best-managed and most efficient.

Aside from the two inspection facilities run by the California Highway Patrol — in Calexico and Otay Mesa, near San Diego — the state has no other permanent commercial inspection facilities on its border. Yet.

The "rumor" mentioned by Fernandez concerning the U.S. Department of Transportation plans was sparked by an announcement earlier this year.

According to the DOT it will spend more than $2 million to build additional inspection bays and parking areas for out-of- service vehicles at the Calexico East Port of Entry's commercial vehicle inspection facility. It will also spend millions to build commercial inspection facilities in Tecate and Andrade.

This action would double the number of California facilities, and just in time, since Mexican trucks should be allowed past the commercial zone by the end of the summer, according to reports from Washington D.C.

For now, commercial Mexican trucks are only allowed to operate within a narrow band of territory that stretches between three and 20 miles inside the border.

In Calexico, they are permitted to go only four miles beyond the city's limits. Beyond that perimeter, they must shift their cargo to American-based carriers.

Last year, a NAFTA arbitration panel concluded that the U.S. limitation on Mexican carriers violated the landmark trade agreement.

President Bush has approved this year's transportation appropriations legislation lifting the ban, but it won't be lifted until the Department of Transportation trains and deploys more than 200 new inspectors at the border and upgrade equipment and expand capacity at inspection sites.

The DOT is scrambling to get that done.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the Department of Transportation's report, the CHP reports that Mexican trucks are only slightly more likely to be put out of service for safety violations than are American trucks.

In total, some 22,000 trucks were inspected last year by the CHP. At Calexico, 39 percent of Mexican trucks were put out of service compared with 33 percent of American trucks.

The difference was even slimmer at Otay Mesa: 23 percent versus 22 percent.

Still, those numbers don't sway a collection of senators on the panel who said the standards for inspection and enforcement need to improve across the board — and fast.

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