The Supreme Court this month cleared the way for Mexican trucks to roll more easily on US highways. The decision is a welcome reinforcement of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, but it leaves unresolved the issues of whether those trucks can meet US safety and pollution standards.
The flow of commercial traffic into the US has blossomed with more open trade - 4.7 million crossings of Mexican trucks in 2002. Under NAFTA, Mexican trucks were supposed to have access to all US routes by 2000. But the Clinton administration caved to pressure from the Teamsters Union, which worked to ensure that its truckers would take over from Mexican drivers no farther than 20 miles from the border. The Supreme Court saw through this anticompetitive attempt to defy the law when it overturned a Ninth Circuit Court's ruling that an environmental impact study must be done on the trucks before they took more fully to US roads.
Environmental and safety concerns are not without validity. Under pressure from environmentalists, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has increased truck inspections. As a consequence, Mexican truckers have shaped up and the percentage of Mexican vehicles taken off the road because of safety problems has declined.
But the Bush administration still needs to figure out how to hold these trucks to high US standards. DOT says it still doesn't have a safety audit program fully in place.
More trucks also mean more pollution, especially near the border, as well as more traffic on many highways. Those problems must be carefully assessed and managed. NAFTA's economic benefits are huge - including having US trucks in Mexico - but dealing with its side effects requires more resources and attention.