The lack of action by the Obama administration to resolve the festering U.S.-Mexican cross-border trucking dispute has drawn the ire of members of the congressional delegation from, of all places, Idaho. In a July 15 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, four Idaho lawmakers called for the "immediate release" of a plan to end the fight. The dispute, which has been ongoing for nearly 18 months, led Mexico to slap tariffs of 20 percent on many U.S. imports in the spring of 2009. By one industry estimate, the squabble has resulted in the loss of 25,000 American jobs, $2.6 billion in lost exports, and $2.2 billion in higher costs for U.S. businesses and consumers.
In March 2009, Congress and the Obama administration ended funding for a two-year program that allowed 100 Mexican trucking firms to operate in the United States beyond a 25-mile commercial zone along the U.S.-Mexico border. In retaliation, Mexico slapped $2.3 billion in penalty duties on 89 U.S. import products, with an immediate duty cost to American consumers of about $421 million, according to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released last September.
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) required an eventual phase-out of access restrictions on Mexican trucks operating in the United States. Under the original schedule, the United States was to have opened its roadways to Mexican truckers on Jan. 1, 2000. However, the United States has blocked implementation of that provision, citing environmental and safety concerns.
LaHood has said previously that the Department of Transportation (DOT) was working on a solution. But the lack of progress has left the Idaho delegation chafing. In the letter, the quartet said that "Mexico's retaliation lingers at the expense of vital sectors of our nation's economy, including family farmers, and a resolution to this issue cannot be prolonged."
The letter was signed by Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch, both Republicans, as well as by Republican congressman Mike Simpson and Democrat Walt Minnick.
Citing the purported damage done to their state's best-known commodity, the lawmakers said proceeds from U.S. exports of frozen potato products have been reduced to less than half what they were before Mexico imposed the retaliatory tariffs in March 2009.
"We understand there has been a proportionate increase in Canadian exports to Mexico equivalent to the reduced exports from the U.S.," the letter said. "This drastic change has affected potato prices and plantings, and has caused farmers to make cuts to their operations."
The lawmakers also said the decline in exports to Mexico caused the recent closing of a Pacific Northwest potato processing plant, leading to the loss of 240 jobs.
The letter went on to say that the tariffs have added more than $4 million to the cost of exporting U.S.-grown onions to Mexico, while tariffs on products like fresh pears, cherries, and apricots have cost U.S. growers approximately $25 million.
In a statement, DOT said it is "committed to working closely with Congress and with the Mexican government to find a resolution that addresses legitimate safety concerns and complies with our international obligations." It declined further comment.
The Teamsters union, which has strongly opposed the opening of U.S. highways to Mexican truckers, maintains that Mexican operators continue to pose a safety and environmental threat to U.S. citizens. The union places responsibility for the job losses elsewhere. NAFTA alone has cost at least 1 million U.S. jobs by giving U.S. businesses incentives to relocate production to lower-cost Mexican locations, the Teamsters have said.