January 18, 2011

U.S., Mexican officials meeting to resolve cross-border truck fight

Aim is to end two-year standoff over access by Mexican trucks to U.S. highways.

By Mark B. Solomon

White House and Department of Transportation (DOT) officials are huddling with their Mexican counterparts in Mexico City today to discuss the DOT's recent proposal to end the two-year standoff over access by Mexican trucks and drivers to U.S. highways.

Speaking today at the SMC3 annual winter meeting in Atlanta, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the purpose of the meeting was to "take a hard look" at the DOT proposal, which if approved, would allow qualified Mexican truckers to operate in U.S. commerce beyond a 25-mile commercial zone along the southern border.

LaHood said the Mexican government is "very anxious" to review DOT's Jan. 6 proposal, adding that Mexican officials or interests had "zero input" in crafting the DOT document.

At the time of the document's release, DOT called it a "starting point" for discussions. If and when an agreement is reached, DOT will give interested parties 30 days to file comments.

The proposal comes 22 months after President Barack Obama signed an omnibus spending bill that ended funding for a 2007 pilot program giving Mexican truckers and drivers limited access to U.S. markets. Supporters of the action, namely the Teamsters union and independent truck drivers, hailed the action as an important step in keeping unsafe and unqualified Mexican truckers off U.S. highways. Critics argued that the administration's decision violated a provision in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that required the United States to grant Mexican truckers full access to its highways by January 2000.

In retaliation, the Mexican government slapped tariffs on 89 U.S. import products worth about $2.4 billion a year. Mexico imposed the tariffs using a rotating "carousel" mechanism that lets it remove some products from the list while adding others. LaHood said the tariffs have had a "huge impact" on U.S. producers and growers, which consider Mexico one of their largest export markets, if not the largest.

Following the release of the DOT document, Mexico said it would stop the "carousel" and refrain from adding any more products to the list. However, LaHood said he doesn't expect Mexico to lift the tariffs until a final agreement is reached. He also said he agreed with comments made earlier this month by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk that an agreement could be finalized by mid-year.

LaHood acknowledged that the proposal has met with severe criticism, notably from transport labor, which views it as a job-killer that will jeopardize the safety of American travelers by allowing sub-standard Mexican drivers and trucks on U.S. highways. "[Teamster President James P.] Hoffa, to put it mildly, hates this proposal," LaHood said.

More articles by Mark B. Solomon

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