Mexican and Canadian trucks now have expanded rights to travel on U.S. highways

Wednesday, September 19, 2007 | 9:02 p.m. CDT; updated 10:21 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — As of this month, that truck you pass on Interstate 70 could be a Mexican or Canadian vehicle. And the new North American trucking system making that possible is generating arguments about safety from the union for American truck drivers.

Effective Sept. 6, Mexican and Canadian truckers were given expanded rights to travel through the U.S. as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While there is no estimate of how many foreign trucks will be rolling through Missouri, nationally around 500 trucks will be entering the country at any given time, said Melissa Delaney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Teamsters say that the incoming trucks are unsafe and that Mexican drivers use illicit substances to stay awake on the road.

But The U.S. Transportation Department said there is a lot of misinformation circulating about the program.

Because of the number of trucks on I-70 and Interstate 44, which crosses the southern portion of the state, Missouri is a major trucking route through the county.

Deanne Bonnot, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the agreement is a part of NAFTA, and the industry has had 12 years to prepare.

“It’s not a big surprise,” Bonnot said. “We feel like we’re ready.”

Delaney said many people who assume the Mexican trucks will be unsafe don’t know about the strict safety standards the companies will have to meet.

She said that any truck coming into the U.S. will have to meet the same standards as U.S. trucks

“In fact, they have to prove a lot more on the front end before they can enter the country,” Delaney said.

Delaney said all incoming trucks will go through a 39-point inspection and will be checked at the border like any other vehicle. Drivers will have to speak English, have a valid drivers license and be insured.

The NAFTA agreement will allow 100 companies each from Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to transport goods across borders.

Delaney called the previous system “terribly inefficient” because trucks were driven to Texas and unloaded. They then sat for a few days, were reloaded and then taken into Mexico.

“To ship from Missouri would take three trips, three drivers,” Delaney said. “You can imagine what that adds to the cost.”

“Compared to how many are on the road, you’ll have to look pretty hard to see those vehicles,” Delaney said.

In 2005, there were 20,300 trucks on I-70 or I-44 each day, Bonnot said, quoting the most recent estimate by the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Mexican trucks will be required to stop at all Missouri weigh stations and will go through the same inspection procedures as American trucks, said State Highway Patrol spokesman Neal Mager.

“They’ll be subject to laws just like everyone else,” he said.

Leslie Miller, spokeswoman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said her organization doesn’t trust the U.S. Department of Transportation because it has been receiving conflicting descriptions of how safety inspections will be conducted.

“The whole point of a pilot program is to see if Mexican trucks are safe, so you just take 500 of the best trucks and put them on the road, and after a year the border opens to everyone,” Miller said. “And that’s what we’re concerned about.”

The Teamsters have been fighting the agreement for months, claiming the plan is dangerous, illegal and a threat to national security.

Miller said she has spoken with U.S. drivers near the Mexican border who are concerned with Mexican drivers taking illicit drugs to stay awake for extensive periods of time and who drive unsafe trucks.

“Bottom line is, we don’t think it’s safe,” Miller said.

According to a report released by the Federal Register, Mexican drivers will undergo drug and alcohol testing when crossing borders and making deliveries.

Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate within a 25-mile zone along the border since 1982.

On Sept. 6 the U.S. Transportation Department granted permission to Transportes Olympic to haul cargo within the U.S. Mexico has also granted authority to an El Paso-based distribution company.

On Sept. 11, Congress approved a measure to halt funding for the program. It still needs to be signed by President Bush, however, who strongly backs the program.

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