Keep on Truckin'

Border towns face an uncertain future as the truck debate rolls on.

Sunshine has an odd way of lingering here at the Mariposa Port of Entry, on the west side of Nogales, Ariz.

Diesel smoke wafts through the truck inspection yard, carrying rays of light far beyond their usual life span in a broad brush of glinty colors.

But the smell, and the occasional low-slung rainbows, don't seem to bother Tony Vasquez, donning a hardhat as he slides beneath an aging semi tractor to check for the much-vaunted safety infractions of these Mexican trucks.

Vasquez is an inspector with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and within minutes he has discovered a glitch: "One of the brake lines is leaking air," he says. "That might be enough to take this one off the road."

A few miles away in City Hall, however, Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez Jr. has other things on his mind. Mainly, he worries about business and revenue, in a town that feasts upon its specialized trade zone status.

Indeed, the debate over allowing Mexican trucks into America's heartland raises red flags for all U.S.-Mexico border communities like Nogales, where a captive import trade drives local economies.

At the same time, residents here say safety worries--touted by opponents to liberalized Mexican truck travel--have been overblown.

The trucks are currently allowed within a 20-mile trade zone north of the international boundary, to drop off their goods in distribution centers like Nogales, and then return to Mexico. But under the North American Free Trade Agreement, they're supposed to enjoy free passage throughout the United States, a possibility staunchly opposed by many U.S. politicians and truckers unions.

Some trade analysts say America's reluctance to honor the NAFTA provision could damage U.S.-Mexico relations and the agreement itself. But down on the border, fears run in the opposite direction--and much closer to home.

"The economic issue is very important because we have from 80 to 100 warehouse facilities that are used by Mexican trucks on a daily basis, and that local people own and operate," says Mayor Lopez. "So the economic impact would be tremendous if the trucks were to bypass us."

He says the primary beneficiaries of loosened restrictions would be larger regional cities like Tucson.

Though colorful folk tales about Mexican trucks abound--the teenager caught driving his rig from atop a milk crate and several phone books is a local favorite--Nogales' 20,000 residents have learned to live with the foreign trucks, with little fear for their safety.

"We see Mexican trucks on our streets every day," says Susan Clarke Morales, executive director of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Economic Development Foundation. "We do kind of a dance around them, but I think the drivers are pretty safe."

Mexican diesels constantly rumble through the city with cargoes of tomatoes and melons, for delivery to a string of produce warehouses along the highway. Others tote electronic products assembled at American-owned plants south of the border.

In the winter produce season, up to 1,000 trucks daily enter the United States through Nogales; that number drops to about 700 daily during summer months.

TRAFFIC IS HEAVY today at the Mariposa Port, as Mexican trucks await their chance to be combed over by federal officials, and inspectors with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

"Inspections can take up to one-and-a-half hours," says Paul De La Ossa, acting port supervisor for the U.S. DOT. He says the process includes a thorough examination of brake, exhaust and electrical systems. "If any one of those doesn't meet our standards, the trucks must be towed to a repair shop before they can go back on the road."

Arizona's DPS keeps six inspectors at the port, according to Lt. Mike Lockhart. He says about 35 percent of Mexican trucks fail inspections, compared with 12 to 20 percent of American trucks nationwide. "Although 35 percent may sound high, there is not going to be carnage on the highways [if restrictions are lifted]. While I can't tell you what the accident picture is, I don't know that any [Mexican trucks] have had collisions with American drivers."

Instead, economic catastrophe remains a far greater fear in Nogales. But Susan Morales Clark says disaster isn't a foregone conclusion, even if the trucks are allowed free passage beyond city limits. "Of course, there's always the 'swinging door' concept, that these trucks might just be zooming past Nogales, and distribution centers might be changing. Still, we're adaptable here, and we might respond by developing a transportation service industry. I could see diesel repair shops sprouting up on every corner."

Nor does she see all trade bypassing the town, regardless of how the issue is decided. "For example, it's not very feasible for the produce industry to make a change, because they own a whole lot of buildings and other facilities here--they already have a whole infrastructure in place," she says.

To Lee Frankel, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the impact of liberalized truck travel would be negligible for association members, who ship $1.2 billion in fruits and vegetables through Nogales annually. "From a business perspective, a lot of the political jockeying is fairly irrelevant to the actual trade itself," he says.

Several produce brokers have already gotten around the restrictions by switching to American drivers at the border port, and using dual plates--American and Mexican on the tractors, and American on trailers. This allows them "to ship directly from the point of origin without going through a distribution center like Nogales or Laredo [Texas]," Frankel says. "So for us, the issue has just involved a lot of fear-mongering, and delays in coming up with real solutions for taking truck safety to a better and higher level."

Even now, safety problems aren't swamping the industry, says Roberto Peraza, a produce salesman with Nogales importer Más Melons and Grapes. "We might see two or three trucks hauling produce for us get flagged [placed out of commission] during the peak produce season. We just get them towed back to the border."

He says if the trucks are eventually allowed throughout the U.S., "the size of the produce company will become a factor," with larger firms able to build new distribution centers in Tucson.

Others worry about the big picture--that the Mexican truck debate itself will slow NAFTA's momentum. "The border economy has been doing very well up until now," says Boris Kozolchyk, executive director of the National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade in Tucson. The truck impasse "will hurt investments in the region for infrastructure--warehousing, financing, retailing, wholesaling, distribution. It is a projected growth that will not take place as a result of there being a lesser amount of traffic coming from and going to Mexico."

But Nogales residents like Susan Clarke Morales remain stubbornly optimistic. "Our geographic location has forced us to be innovative," she says. "Things are always going to be changing on the border. But we're survivors."

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