Congress’ GAO on border crossing: first, you need a good plan
President Bush signed legislation in December to grant Mexican truckers access to U.S. highways. The White House is hopeful the border will open sometime in the second quarter of this year. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta has mentioned May or maybe June. However, a just-released congressional report casts doubt on anything happening that soon, reporting the U.S. DOT lacks an effective plan and the facilities to ensure Mexican trucks operating in the United States comply with American safety and environmental standards.

The General Accounting Office report released Jan. 8 said the U.S. government and most border states are not prepared to ensure that Mexican-domiciled carriers meet U.S. safety standards, outlined in legislation last fall that broke the impasse to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. roads.

Auditors found extensive shortcomings in the DOT’s preparations for the border opening, and noted it criticized the department for the same failures in earlier reports. “We disagree with DOT’s comments that they are well advanced in their efforts to implement our recommendations as well as the many requirements contained in the appropriations act,” said the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm.

The GAO also pointed out that even prior to the appropriations act, DOT had not reached agreements with the states on how to allocate their inspectors or with other federal agencies on the space needed to conduct additional truck inspections. Federal regulators have not obtained permanent space for inspections of Mexican trucks at any of the 25 southwest border ports of entry, which is crucial for conducting regular, rigorous inspections, the GAO said. Instead, federal officials are using space provided by the U.S. Customs Service.

Another sticking point is the required exchange of driver information. Before the trucks are allowed on U.S. highways, it is essential enforcement personnel have real-time access to Mexican driver records. With DOT’s support, Mexico has developed five databases with important information on the safety records of its drivers and motor carriers. The GAO reports as of October 2001, only 23 percent of Mexico’s commercial drivers had been entered in the license database. The DOT says drivers from Mexico will not be allowed to cross the border until they are in this database.

The GAO also concluded that relatively few Mexican carriers are ready to kick off cross-border operations for a number of reasons. Most have not yet drummed up enough business in the United States to assure drivers return to Mexico carrying cargo. Also, the availability and cost of insurance are intimidating. Companies currently providing insurance to Mexican trucking companies told the GAO premiums for Mexican motor carriers will be set at the highest level and come down as the “market matures.”

The report also cites congestion and delays in crossing the border that make long-haul operations less profitable.

High registration fees are another deterrent. Like other carriers, Mexican carriers must pay registration fees to each state in which they operate. Mexico’s participation in the International Registration Plan (IRP) Inc., a registration reciprocity agreement among North American jurisdictions that provides for payment of license fees on the basis of fleet miles operated in various jurisdictions. Under the IRP, 100 percent of member jurisdictions must approve new jurisdictions participating in the Plan. But some states are constitutionally prohibited from dealing directly with sovereign nations. The short-term option is for Mexican carriers to obtain trip permits from each U.S. jurisdiction they will travel through on a particular trip, but the price tag? Ouch! In any language. For example, a Mexican truck traveling from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to Tulsa, OK, must purchase trip permits before traveling through Texas and Oklahoma. According to the GAO report, a non-member truck traveling through these states once a week for a year would pay about $5,600 more annually than a member truck.

by Sandi Soendker and Keith Goble

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is working hard to issue the Mexican rulemakings governing the entry of Mexican trucks to the United States. Those rules are now being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget