Negotiating Roads and Treaty Obligations

Three federal judges are considering whether to allow some Mexican truckers free rein on U.S. roads. And the situation has some left-leaning groups pretty ticked off.

The Bush administration in September moved forward with a pilot program to allow trucks based in Mexico to deliver goods throughout the United States.

Allowing Mexican trucks full access to U.S. roads is actually a requirement of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. For years, that aspect of NAFTA was not carried out.

In December, Congress attempted to stop the program with some nifty legislation that killed any funding from being used to "establish" such a pilot program.

White House officials have ignored that law. They say their program was established, well before Congress acted.

The Teamsters and Sierra Club joined forces, along with Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, to take the Bush administration to court arguing the pilot program goes against the congressional act.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has listened to the arguments and is in the midst of deciding whether to allow the program to move forward.

Currently, trucks registered in Mexico that are not part of the program can go no further than 25 miles into the United States.

Proponents of the pilot program believe U.S. consumers will save millions of dollars because Mexican truckers can deliver the goods for less money.

But at what cost?

For two of the opponents, their concerns are fairly obvious: The Teamsters are afraid their members will lose work and the Sierra Club doesn't want to see more polluting trucks on the road.

It's the argument from Public Citizen that should pique the curiosity of U.S., and specifically Las Vegas, motorists who drive truck-infested roads such as Interstate 15 on a daily basis.

The Mexican trucks just aren't safe, according to Public Citizen.

The United States already has 5,000 deaths and more than 100,000 injuries from truck-related crashes annually and the group doesn't want to see any more.

According to data from Public Citizen, a fifth of the trucks in Mexico do not meet U.S. safety standards and the United States has not been allowed full access to Mexico's license records system.

U.S. inspectors have certified more than 40 Mexican trucks and drivers and allowed them to deliver goods in the United States since the pilot program was launched, according to a report by The Associated Press. The program allows up to 500 trucks from 100 Mexican companies to have full access to U.S. roads.

Public Citizen isn't the only group troubled by the issue.

Sgt. Garth Gardner, a 23-year veteran of the Nevada Highway Patrol and head of commercial enforcement in the valley, said U.S. law enforcement agencies have serious concerns about the trucks coming from Mexico.

Right now the trucks are getting stopped at the border and are receiving a thorough inspection, Gardner said. "Everyone is watching them."

Which means the trucks that are coming across the border are on their best behavior.

But what would happen if the full fleet of Mexican trucks could cross the border?

Gardner doesn't want to think about it.

There already is a staffing shortage in law enforcement at the border and on U.S. roads, he said.

"What we are worried about is they don't have the structured maintenance down there like we do here," Gardner said. "If any truck, it doesn't matter if it's from Mexico, if it loses control on the highway, they don't just hurt themselves, they hurt everyone around them."

Gardner and his fellow troopers are actively watching for trucks from Mexico.

"We're not hunting for them, but when we see one, we pull it over and make sure they are safe," he said.

Maybe it's a stereotype that Mexican authorities can't be trusted when it comes to enforcing laws, but it's a widely held U.S. attitude in my experience.

I went to the Flying J truck stop at Losee Road and Cheyenne Avenue to see what truckers think.

I ran into Dan Smith of Illinois while he was chatting with a couple of fellow truckers. Smith said he's been down to the border a bunch of times and has seen firsthand the results of Mexican truck inspectors.

"I got two words for you, but you won't be able to print them in your newspaper," Smith warned.

Being an optimist, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After listening to his two-word argument, I realized Smith, with his bushy white beard and tales of once paying 19 cents a gallon for diesel fuel, was right. This newspaper wouldn't under normal conditions print the two words he spoke.

Smith painted a grim picture of trucks with busted brake lines, missing lights and doors, and torn cables meant to secure loads that are often overweight.

"It's pitiful," he said. "They get away with it down there because no one enforces" the regulations.

In the meantime, Smith has little faith in the lawsuit.

"There ain't no stopping it," he said. "They haul for less than what we haul for."

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