Semi Strife

Congress votes down a NAFTA-mandated trucking program, and Mexico brings on the tariffs

They're 40-ton orphans of free trade, long slated to be barreling down a highway near you. But after years of political shell games on Capitol Hill, yet another push to unleash Mexican trucks across the United States has been quashed.

In March, Congress killed a pilot program that edged toward finally fulfilling this key component of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Modest in its approach, the program allowed a limited number of the trucks unlimited coast-to-coast travel across the United States. But once again, opponents trotted out the specter of unsafe rigs putting American drivers at risk.

Left-leaning advocacy groups such as Public Citizen have been relentless foes of allowing the trucks freer rein. So has the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which blasted the pilot project as expensive—it cost a reported $500,000—and illegal. "The driving public is put at risk when trucks from Mexico that don't meet U.S. standards are allowed to roam our highways," boomed Teamsters president Jim Hoffa in a March 11 press release. "... It's long past time to close the border to these unguided missiles."

The clout of Mexican-truck opponents has gained obvious heft in the Democrat-controlled Congress. While there may be legitimate reasons for restricting these trucks to the current "commercial zone" that reaches 25-miles north of the border, free-trade proponents insist that safety isn't one of them.

"I think it's hard, with a straight face, to be arguing that there are still safety issues," says David Gantz, director of the International Trade Law Program at the UA's Rogers College of Law. Gantz, who is also associate director of the pro-NAFTA National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade, points out that Congress "already passed one set of safety-improvement laws in 2003, and then the pilot program that started in 2007."

Unveiled under then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the program monitored safety records of a select number of Mexican trucks allowed access beyond the commercial zone. They did not turn out to be the 18-wheeled death traps characterized by opponents: Peters' 12-month U.S.-Mexico Cross-Border Trucking Demonstration Project report often found the trucks to be out-performing their North American counterparts.

For instance, after 7,000 driver-safety inspections of participating Mexican trucks, less than 1 percent of them were yanked from service for serious violations—a lower out-of-service rate than comparable U.S. carriers had. Likewise, of 1,400 Mexican rigs inspected, just 8.7 percent were found to have serious violations. That compares to 23 percent for U.S. carriers.

Those results, coupled with the commercial-zone restrictions now firmly back in place, mean these trucks aren't scoring high on any list of law enforcement worries. "They are not a red flag for us," says Lt. Ken Hunter with Arizona Department of Public Safety's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Bureau. "Now, if (Congress) reverses the current decision that stopped that project—if they opened up the border—then we'd obviously be interested in a little more data-tracking of those vehicles, and things of that nature."

According to Hunter, the DPS currently has only part-time inspectors at the ports of entry, working side by side with fellow inspectors from the U.S. Department of Transportation. But if Congress were to change course, he says, "I think we'd need additional resources at those ports, at least for the initial inspections right at the beginning, rather than after (the trucks) get deeper into the interior" of the United States.

However, neither the safety study nor the promise of beefed-up enforcement puts Joe Hernandez at ease. As business representative for the Tucson's Teamsters Local 104, he sees Mexican haulers as potential competitors "who don't fall under the same regulations as the American truckers. (Teamsters president Hoffa) feels that the trucks aren't as safe as ours under the regulations, and could be potentially harmful to citizens on the road."

There are also concerns among border communities that liberalizing Mexican truck traffic could steer commerce north. One victim might be Nogales, Ariz., where some business leaders fear that the city's huge produce storage and brokerage industry might gravitate to Tucson, or even Phoenix, if the trucks were allowed beyond the 25-mile zone.

But Allison Moore, spokeswoman for the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, doesn't see her industry packing up anytime soon. Instead, she says that fears about the foreign trucks reveal a basic misunderstanding of transportation economics. "People think that (the entire U.S.) is going to be inundated with Mexican trucks. But the reality is that it's a business practice you have to grow into. It's not that all of a sudden, there are going to be 1,000 U.S. trucks driving across Mexico, and vice versa. You have to establish customer bases so that you not only have a load going one way, but also a load for the return."

Instead, Moore sees a trade war sparked by the truck dispute as a bigger threat to the produce brokers and the Mexican growers her organization represents. "Our business is intrinsically linked to NAFTA," she says, "and to both countries living up to their end of the agreement. If there's a major disruption in trade between the two countries, then it has the potential to escalate, which could certainly affect us."

It doesn't help that new tariffs, rolled out by Mexico after the late congressional vote, take aim mostly at U.S. agricultural exports. That makes Mexican produce an easy target for retaliation. "If the U.S. decides to start a trade war instead of complying with the agreement that they put in place years and years ago," says Moore, "that could impact what's coming right through here."

Meanwhile, America's governing class may be feeling the heat as those heavy tariffs—reaching 45 percent in some cases—impact everyone from California grape growers to Washington state potato farmers. It's widely believed that Mexico targeted the import tariffs to districts represented by key members of Congress. If nothing else, that sophisticated maneuver may have upended the political landscape.

"It used to be a very inexpensive vote to vote against the Mexican trucks," say David Gantz. "But now, that's the one thing that has definitely changed."