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Analysis: Reaction to Mexican trucks mixed

By PHIL MAGERS   |   June 8, 2004 at 6:25 PM
DALLAS, June 8 (UPI) -- Texas trucking officials don't expect a major influx of Mexican trucks as the result of this week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but environmentalists are concerned about the harmful air emissions the trucks might bring to border communities.

"This vision that there's somebody standing at the border with a green flag and they're going to drop it and all these Mexican trucks are going to come flying across ... that's just not going to happen," said Bill Webb, president and chief executive officer for the Texas Motor Transportation Association, which represents Texas trucking companies.

Mexican truck companies will face rigid safety inspections from state and federal officials in the United States, and the cost of complying with those laws may be more than some of them can pay, he said.

"We don't anticipate a large number of trucks," said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has the responsibility for making sure the Mexican trucks comply with state law.

Mange said state troopers have been "ramping up" inspections since the North American Free Trade Agreement increased truck traffic on the state's highways, so the high court's ruling will not force a major change in Texas operations.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court said the president has the authority to open the border to long-haul Mexican trucks without conducting a more detailed environmental-impact study on the Mexican trucks traveling U.S. roads.

The lawsuit was filed in 2002 by Public Citizen, the Environmental Law Foundation, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the California Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, the California Trucking Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Originally, NAFTA was to open the United States to long-haul Mexican trucks four years ago, but President Clinton extended a 1982 ban on the traffic, citing safety reasons. His administration was pressured from labor unions.

Mexican officials praised the court ruling as a victory for the open border that the NAFTA agreement guaranteed. They said Mexican truckers would comply with U.S. safety and environmental regulations.

Luis de la Calle, a consultant in Mexico for Austin-based Public Strategies Inc., told The Dallas Morning News the long-term impact will be important to the Mexican economy.

"NAFTA was negotiated so that in a matter like trucking there would be 'national treatment,' that is, Mexican trucks would be treated equally and be subject to the same rules as American trucks," de la Calle said. "This is a victory against discriminatory practices."

Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate in a 20-mile commercial zone along the Texas border, but with the new authority they will be able to haul anywhere in the United States after they pass inspection. Canadian truckers have operated in the United States since 1982.

"It will take several months for all these things to take place and for them to get authority to operate as a long-haul trucker," said Mange. "Once they have tentative approval, for the next 18 months they will be under the scrutiny of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to make sure they are meeting record-keeping requirements."

U.S. transportation officials have received more than 1,000 applications from Mexican companies seeking long-haul authority in the United States, but some in the Texas trucking industry believe only a small fraction will actually press ahead to seek authority.

Public Citizen, one of plaintiffs, is concerned about the impact of the trucks on the border communities in terms of traffic congestion and air pollution. Laredo, for example, is one of the busiest truck crossings on the U.S-Mexico border.

"This ruling in essence tells those communities they must fend for themselves because the federal government isn't going to help them by ever acknowledging or accurately describing the impact of its own decisions on their air quality," said Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen.

Texas cities like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are already battling air pollution, trying to meet requirements of the federal Clean Air Act. Many of the major interstates from the border pass through those cities on long-haul routes.

Mexican trucks will be subject to inspections for emissions-control equipment by U.S. inspectors -- the same as U.S. trucks -- but in most cases they are older vehicles, according to Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office in Austin.

"Mexican trucks typically emit far more pollution per mile simply because they are older," he said. "On average, a Mexican truck is about 16 years of age, and the average American truck is about five years of age."

Most of the trucks built before 1996 have few emissions controls. There is no emissions testing for the large over-the-road trucks in either the United States or Mexico.

Smith expects the volume of truck traffic across the border to increase in the long term, not only because of Mexican trucks in the United States, but also because of U.S. trucking companies moving into Mexico.

"Many American companies will begin to see significant advantage to shipping their operations into Mexico because drivers will be less expensive and they are able to operate with less restrictions of various kinds," he said. "It may take a while to get going, but the net result may well be that this is another part of our workforce that is shipped to another country."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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