Saturday, April 04, 2009

Another Border Issue

Most of you probably don't know that under the late unlamented maladministration trucks not licensed in the U.S. were allowed to operate here over the Mexican border. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers' Association made a lot of trouble over that, for several reasons, and of course not the least of those was its own business.

The Sierra Club and Public Citizen, along with the Teamsters, raised objections about safety and environmental standards, but were of course driven over by a White House that thought the public interest was interference with its absolute power. However, these were issues that concerned all of us, as Mexico does not require a lot of the safety measures that have developed in the U.S. Another issue was raised here about language ability and training. Last month Congress ended that experiment in unsafety at any speed.

Rescinding that measure, whose legality was always questionable, has created a stir with Mexico that has resulted in their placing tariffs on items like grapes from California. That was a direct slap back at Speaker Nancy Pelosi who was instrumental in ending the measure. Other growers affected by the tariffs have been outspoken in asking to return the commerce at any cost.

The long-simmering dispute over allowing Mexican trucks onto U.S. highways is escalating into a trade war that could cost Washington state agricultural interests millions of dollars in lost sales and present the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress with an early test of their trade policies.

Washington's pear, cherry, apricot and Christmas tree growers find themselves in the middle of a trade clash not of their own making and facing 20 percent tariffs on their exports to Mexico.

The biggest impact, however, could be on the state's potato growers and processors. Mexico buys $83 million worth of frozen potato products annually, the bulk of them from Washington state, where 10 plants employing 20,000 people produce frozen French fries, hash browns and Tater Tots.

On the other side, organized labor, led by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and consumer groups continue to insist Mexican trucks and their drivers present a major road hazard to U.S. motorists. They also charge that Mexico illegally imposed the tariffs without living up to its obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The dispute dates to 1995, when the United States refused to allow Mexican trucks across the border as required under NAFTA. The trade agreement, which also includes Canada, allowed for cross-border truck traffic, but U.S. officials said Mexican trucks and their drivers were unsafe.

Rather than allowing Mexican trucks free access to U.S. roads and highways, a pilot program was launched that allowed a limited number of trucks into the United States while safety issues were resolved.

Earlier this month, in approving a $410 billion spending bill, Congress killed the pilot program. Within days, Mexico retaliated by imposing tariffs on nearly 90 U.S.-produced goods worth about $2.4 billion.

The tariffs covered such products as cherries, pears, apricots, frozen potato products, Christmas trees, strawberries, onions, fresh grapes, pet food, books, shampoo, pet food, toothpaste and dishwashers.

Mexican Economic Minister Gerardo Ruiz Mateos said Congress' decision to eliminate the pilot program was "wrong, protectionist and clearly in violation of the treaty."

Teamsters President James Hoffa said Mexican trucks and drivers still don't meet U.S. safety standards and records on Mexican driving violations are often incomplete and inaccurate, records of how many hours Mexican drivers have driven can't be found and there were questions about certified testing facilities to detect alcohol and drugs in drivers.

"Mexico has had 15 years to meet safety standards set by Congress and until they are met, the American public doesn't want these unsafe trucks on our highways," Hoffa said in an e-mail statement.

The NAFTA agreements have never looked like a plus to the U.S. anyway, but safety standards are a real issue in Texas, where most of the traffic would occur. The last eight years gave us a feel for what total lack of public interest spending and regulation would be like. We can do better than let poorly maintained vehicles with overworked drivers loose on our roads.

Another issue raised locally has been the increasing refusal of U.S. drivers to go south of the border because of the mayhem there. Without traffic from the U.S. going south, it is reasonable to assume truck business would increase for the Mexican trucks.

Trade wars may be a burden to growers in other states, but safety should be a big consideration in Transportation Secretary LaHood's agenda. Having driven in traffic that was largely huge trucks to get to various places, I really would want to know that the trucks at least had met basic safety standards. I'll buy the grapes from California myself, thank you.

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