The Department of Transportation is going ahead with U.S.-Mexico cross-border trucking even though President Bush signed legislation intended to kill the program.

DOT is able to do this because the language in the appropriations bill that Bush signed in December is imprecise. It says that federal funds cannot be used to "establish" a cross-border program, but since the program was already established when Bush signed the bill, DOT contends that the funding restriction does not apply.

"In accordance with the 2008 omnibus appropriation act, the U.S. Department of Transportation will not new establish any new demonstration programs with Mexico," DOT said in a statement attributed to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which administers the program. "The current cross-border trucking demonstration program project - established in September - will continue to operate in a manner that puts safety first."

This maneuver has set off alarms on Capitol Hill. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who has been a vocal opponent of the Mexico program, told DOT Secretary Mary Peters that DOT is violating congressional intent.

"The DOT response is both arrogant and wrong!" Dorgan said in a letter to Peters.

He said that he solicited an opinion on the language from the Senate Legislative Counsel, a non-partisan legislative drafting service, which responded that the provision was intended to prohibit funding for the project.

Supporters and opponents alike understood that the provision was supposed to cut off funds, Dorgan said. "I offered my amendment to stop the pilot program because I think there are real safety concerns that need to be addressed before Mexico-domiciled motor carriers are allowed to roam freely in the United States," he said.

"I urge you to immediately end the pilot program," Dorgan wrote. "The Department will be making a serious mistake if it believes it is not required to abide by this new legislation."

There is similar concern at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Spokesperson Mary Kerr said the committee agrees with Dorgan's take that DOT is violating the intent of the legislation. Both Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the panel, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the highway subcommittee, oppose the program.

Meanwhile, the list of Mexican and U.S. carriers signing up for the cross-border program grew slightly to 15 - 11 Mexican and four U.S. Another 37 Mexican carriers have been cleared for the program, according to FMCSA.

The program was set up by DOT to test the system it has set up to ensure the safety of Mexican carriers. It will be limited to a chosen group of up to 100 Mexican trucking companies and will last a year. A joint Mexican-American committee will monitor the pilot and at the end of the year decide whether to open the border further or make adjustments.

Highway Commission Calls For Deep Reforms And Higher Taxes

Governance of the surface transportation system needs immediate, substantive reform, including a substantial increase in funding, in order to preserve the nation's competitiveness and social well-being, a bipartisan panel of experts is telling Congress.

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission has been working for two years on the analysis that is intended to shape the next federal transportation law, due in 2009.

The report includes a minority view that strongly dissents from the majority on key matters of philosophy and fund raising, but the majority is unified and insistent on the central tenet that the current system of governance has outlived its usefulness.

"We have outgrown (the) system and it is time for new leadership to step up with a vision for the next 50 years that will ensure U.S. prosperity and global preeminence for generations to come," the committee said in its call to action.

The most attention-grabbing recommendation concerns funding: raise the federal fuel tax from 5 to 8 cents per gallon per year over the next five years, and then index the tax to inflation. The fuel tax system is adequate for the time being, but by 2025 the commission would like to see a different fund-raising mechanism: a vehicle mile tax.

But other recommendations are equally significant if not as dramatic to the public.

For example, the commission wants to streamline the federal approach to surface transportation by allocating federal funds on the basis of goals and performance standards rather than modes. It would replace more than 100 current federal programs with this 10-part structure:

- A national asset management program to keep in good repair those portions of the infrastructure in which there is a strong federal interest.

- A program to increase highway capacity for national and regional freight movements, including public-private projects to facilitate international trade and intermodal connectors near ports.

- A program to relieve congestion in the largest metropolitan areas by facilitating comprehensive local strategies such as expanded transit systems and more highway capacity.

- A program to improve safety throughout the system, with the goal of cutting surface transportation fatalities in half by 2025.

- A national access program to update the connections between urban, suburban and rural communities that have grown up since the initial road and rail networks were built.

- A program to build an intercity passenger rail network that provides competitive, reliable and frequent passenger service, comparable to world-class systems in other countries.

- Consolidate existing programs into one that makes it easier for states to reduce the environmental impacts of transportation. Here the commission envisions projects that encourage intermodal freight, smooth traffic flow, reduce congestion at rail crossings, offer alternative commute routes and use of more energy-efficient construction and lighting materials.

- Support development of clean fuels with a research program funded at $200 million a year over a decade. "For transportation to make a significant contribution to reducing energy consumption, policies to that end cannot be marginal, but instead must be basic to mobility," the commission said.

- A program to provide access to public lands.

- A program to monitor ongoing research and development and target funds to gaps. "There must be a robust, predictable federal investment in this area," the commission said.

The commission also calls for accelerating the process of project implementation. Cutting the current 10-to-13 year gestation period for federally funded programs in half would save billions of dollars, the commission said.

And the commission wants to retain a strong federal role in transportation, but also to depoliticize investment decisions by setting performance standards based on cost-benefit analyses, rather than traditional pork barrel tactics. To that end, it envisions a National Surface Transportation Commission, modeled after the military's Base Closure and Realignment Commission, that would establish the cost of a project and recommend a financing mechanism, subject to congressional veto.

Three of the 12 commissioners dissented: Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the chairman of the commission; former deputy transportation secretary Maria Cino; and Cornell University Professor Rick Geddes. They oppose the use of the fuel tax as a way of funding the highway system, and want a reduced federal role in the process.

Debate over the report will begin in earnest when the commission testifies before Congress in late January.