WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to delay a Bush administration plan to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways.
The trucks would have to be declared safe first, the lawmakers said, and Mexico would have to give U.S. truckers the same access south of the border.
The House voted 411-3 to approve a three-year Department of Transportation pilot program that would restrict opening the border to 100 carriers based in Mexico. They would be allowed to use a maximum of 1,000 vehicles under the pilot program.
The Bush administration wanted to start a pilot program this year that would run for a year before fully opening the border to Mexican trucks.
The House bill, however, specifies criteria for the pilot program before it can start, including setting up an independent panel to evaluate the test program and getting certification from the inspector general that safety and inspection requirements have been met.
The Department of Transportation says it could be as late as 2008 before Congress's criteria are met, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Lawmakers said their major concern is whether Mexican trucks, often older than U.S. cargo vehicles, and Mexican drivers will be able to meet rigorous U.S. safety standards.
"We do not need 90,000-pound unguided missiles on our highways," said Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C.
American trucking companies have spent years getting their vehicles up to the Transportation Department standards, lawmakers said. Letting Mexican trucks across the border without making them meet those standards is wrong, they said.
"We're going to have a major accident somewhere, and people are going to say, 'How did this happen?" said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.
Added Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich: "We need to ensure that this program only takes places after the Mexican companies meet the same conditions that American companies do."
Lawmakers also complained that allowing Mexican trucks greater access will cost American truckers their jobs.
"You can get a Mexican truck driver to work for a heck of a lot less than a Teamster in the United States, and you can get a Mexican dock worker to work for a heck of a lot less than a longshoreman in the United States and that's what this is ultimately designed to do," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
The Bush administration had planned to run a yearlong pilot program that would allow Mexican trucks beyond the current 20-mile limit from the border but the launch was halted after complaints from Congress.
Since 1982, trucks have had to stop within the buffer zone and transfer their loads to U.S. truckers to take them into the country. The legislation would allow Mexican drivers to take their loads from Mexico to any point within the country.
Supporters of the plan say letting more Mexican trucks on U.S. highways will save American consumers hundreds of millions of dollars. They include many in the trucking industry, the Bush administration and lawmakers who favor the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Access to all U.S. highways was promised by 2000 under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, as was access through Mexico for U.S. carriers. That aspect has been stalled by lawsuits and disagreements between the two countries, though Canadian and U.S. trucks travel freely across the northern border.