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Senate blocks DOT cross-border program

Senate blocks DOT cross-border program

The U.S. Senate voted by a 3-to-1 margin Tuesday to stop a Bush administration program allowing Mexican-domiciled trucks to haul cargo throughout the United States.

   Citing safety concerns over the foreign trucks, the Senate voted 75-23 to block funds for the pilot program. The vote came on an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to a $106 billion transportation and housing bill. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a similar bill in July.

   The move is the latest Congressional roadblock to detour the Department of Transportation pilot program that officially started Sunday. Announced earlier this year, the program called for the DOT to authorize fleets from 100 pre-screened Mexican trucking firms to travel throughout the United States. Under terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signatories Mexico and the United States must allow access to trucks from each nation. Since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, legislation and litigation have limited Mexican trucks to a narrow 20- to 25-mile zone along the border.

   In addition to Congressional ire, the DOT truck program has drawn fierce criticism and legal challenges from labor, environmental and trucking industry groups. All have cited safety issues as one of the main reasons for opposing the DOT program.

   “There has not been a demonstration that there are equivalent standards and equivalent enforcement with respect to Mexican trucks and U.S. trucks,” Dorgan said Tuesday.

   During Tuesday's debate of the bill, Dorgan summarized the findings of an Office of Inspector General's report on the pilot program. He pointed out that the report, whose release last Thursday evening triggered the start of the pilot program less than an hour later, specifically detailed that U.S. screening of trucks to be authorized for the program did not obtain key information of safety from the Mexican firms.

   'What kind of information wasn’t available?' Dorgan said. 'Well, little things, apparently. (The report says) Specifically, information pertaining to vehicle inspections, accident reports and driver violations.'

   According to Dorgan, the crux of the matter is located within the first two pages of the report, where it details efforts to inspect each of the Mexican trucks to be authorized by the DOT program. 'The Inspector General says, 'as of July 2007,' a month and a half ago, 'no coordinated site-specific plans to carry out such checks were in place.'

   'And the (report) stated the (DOT) would have the plans then outlined by Aug. 22, but we have not received any outlines or completed plans. 'In our opinion,' the report says, 'not having site specific plans developed and in place prior to initiating this project will increase the risk that project participants will be able to avoid the required checks.' '

   Dorgan also referenced a Sunday crash in northern Mexico of an explosives-laden truck, and the subsequent detonation of the cargo that killed 37 people and injured 150 more, despite the truck not being involved in the DOT program. Other senators also referenced the accident during the debate.

   “While this program would not allow Mexican trucks to transport hazardous materials inside the United States, this tragedy reconfirms my commitment to preventing accidents on American highways,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

   Proponents of the DOT pilot plan — mainly Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have said Mexican trucks under the DOT plan would be held accountable to the same safety standards as U.S. trucks. They also have noted that DOT pilot program is limited to authorizing 600 Mexican trucks to participate.

   “That’s a pretty minuscule number,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. He pointed to statistics showing that in 2006 about 5.1 million commercial domestic trailers were registered for business purposes in the United States.

   “Those people who fear that Mexican trucks will not be held to the same standard as U.S. trucks in America are incorrect,” Kyl said. “It seems to me it is worth giving this program a chance.”

   Other proponents of the plan, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas — who offered a failed amendment allowing a version of the program with tighter safety standards — have accused opponents of discriminating against Mexico.

   “How does it look if we’re going to hold trucks coming from Mexico to a different standard than trucks from Canada?” he said.

   A House-Senate negotiating committee must now resolve differences between the House and Senate bills. Once agreed upon, the bill must also be signed by the president, where the possibility of a veto looms.

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