Finally! That's how I reacted when I heard the United States decided it would – in a limited fashion – open the Mexican border under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After all, the treaty was signed by the senior President Bush way back in 1992, but various political wranglings have had it on hold for close to 15 years.
During all that time, a single truck shipment between the U.S. and Mexico has taken three drivers and three tractors. A trailer crossing the border must be transferred from the originating carrier to a drayage carrier, cross the border and be transferred yet again to a carrier that can take it to its destination.
The process wastes money, drives up the cost of goods, and leaves trucks loaded with cargo idling inside U.S. borders. There were nine million such crossings in 2005.
In late February, the Department of Transportation announced a demonstration program designed to simplify the process and move forward with our longstanding promise to actually have "free trade" with Mexico. Here's what's supposed to happen:
Starting in mid-April, U.S. trucks will make deliveries into Mexico, while a select group of Mexican trucking companies will be allowed to make deliveries beyond the 20-25 mile commercial zones currently in place along the Southwest border.
The first Mexican trucks to be authorized will begin traveling beyond U.S. border areas once the initial in-person safety inspections are done and proof of insurance is verified. With the border fully open, the originating carrier will be able to cross the border and deliver the shipment directly to its destination, thereby reducing costs, inefficiency, pollution and transit times.
Good deal, huh?
Not so fast. We barely got details of the pilot plan before various organizations began bashing it .
Both the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the Teamsters Union decried the program, saying it will pose a U.S. highway safety problem and a threat to national security. They're saying DOT has overstepped its bounds, and possibly violated Congressional mandate.
DOT Secretary Mary Peters asserts that her agency has a rigorous inspection program in place to ensure safe operation of Mexican trucks crossing into the U.S. It includes having American inspectors conduct in-person safety audits to make sure that participating Mexican companies comply with our safety regulations.
And the regulations require all Mexican truck drivers to hold valid commercial driver licenses, carry proof they are medically fit, comply with all U.S. hours of service rules and be able to understand questions and directions in English.
DOT has spent $500 million since 1995 to modernize border safety facilities and train more than 500 federal and state border inspectors.
The pilot program also has the stamp of approval of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "The tough security measures we already have in place will remain unchanged," he said, "resulting in a smart and secure approach to safeguarding the border, while allowing for American and Mexican carriers to deliver cargo outside of arbitrary commercial zones."
It seems to us that the involved agencies have done their homework (15 years of it) and come up with a workable plan to test the NAFTA waters.
In the big picture, NAFTA just makes too much economic sense to continue stalling it.
E-mail Deb Whistler at firstname.lastname@example.org