Crossing Borders

Crossing Borders

Like too many things involving Bush administration programs these days, the fracas over Mexican trucks is a controversy that didn't have to happen.

That's too bad because there may be merit to the Department of Transportation's pilot program, but that's been obscured in the way the entire matter has been handled from start to finish. In fact, the way the program started was a good indicator that it was finished.

Certainly, the DOT has started programs with strong industry consultations, important attempts to gather information, efforts to inform a broad spectrum of shippers and carriers and to gain something like a consensus built around common goals. This time, however, the department decided to go in the proverbial other direction.

The result last week was a pilot program hanging by a thread, with the DOT trying to push it forward while backpedaling. In physics that results in moving in place; in Washington, it gets you thrown to the side of the road.

That's because the House voted 411-3 last week for the Safe American Roads Act (we'll track down for you later the names of the three legislators who oppose safe American roads), a bill that wouldn't necessarily stop the pilot program for Mexican trucks but would put strict requirements around the program. Of course, that would effectively kill the program, or at least impose a long delay, because there aren't many signs DOT has done the sort of groundwork that is needed to make sure the program works and give opponents less reason to complain and Americans less reason to worry.

That was evident in the DOT announcement April 30 that U.S. trucks will be able to operate in Mexico at the same time the first Mexican trucks are allowed to operate beyond the 20-mile zone near the U.S.-Mexico border. "We are working to give American truckers an unprecedented opportunity to compete in a substantial new market," DOT Secretary Mary E. Peters said at the time.

DOT may have been working on that, but only after truckers launched broadside attacks on the pilot program, including the lack of reciprocity that would give Mexican trucking companies an important head start in setting up networks spanning the border. As Traffic World's John Gallagher reported on March 12, "Even a small tilt of the playing field ? along the southern border could translate into big numbers" for trucking companies.

But there's little to suggest the DOT considered such things beforehand.

Supporters of the administration's pilot program - and they include many shippers anxious for the capacity and the smoother transport channels - shouldn't have anything against the House plan.

The bill would ensure the administration does what it already promises to do - put the same strict safety standards on Mexican trucks that U.S. truckers must meet, including licensing and inspection standards.

It also would put strict time limits (please don't call them withdrawal dates, however) on the program, making sure it meets the very criteria the administration should have been using in the first place.

It would mean openness, in other words, in opening the border.