The Dawn of Borderless Trucking

American truckers predict rolling 'Chernobyls,' Mexicans fear lost jobs

THE American view: Mexican truckers are coming in unsafe rigs. That giant rumbling sound you'll soon hear in the border states will come from aging, dangerous Mexican trucks allowed onto US roads under a new provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Mexican view: American tractor-trailer drivers will invade their turf. That giant sucking sound you'll hear will be thousands of Mexican truckers' jobs going North to the more efficient and better-equipped truckers of the United States and Canada.

Those two scenarios are prompted by a provision of NAFTA that goes into effect next week. For the first time, Mexican trucks will be allowed to operate throughout the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

American and Canadian trucks will also be allowed into the similar border region of Mexico.

Most trucking officials and border economists downplay the provision's potential for the kind of frightening short-term impact commonly portrayed on both sides of the border. But here on the border, concern is expressed by the truckers themselves, some public officials, and many residents.

On the US side, they see overloaded, bald-tired, and lightless Mexican trucks - some carrying explosive or other toxic materials - barreling up the interstates, and they shudder.

"I ain't seen nothing down there in Mexico that could meet our safety standards, and now we're going to be running into that up here," says Larry Haspel, a long-haul truck driver resting in a Laredo truck stop before the ride home to Weirton, W.V. "I saw a [Mexican] guy the other day with a top-heavy load that was shifting like an accordion, but he didn't care. That's what they're used to."

US Department of Transportation (DOT) officials insist Mexican trucks will face the same tough safety regulations and inspections as domestic trucks face. But many US drivers remain dubious - some pointing out that current stepped-up vehicle inspections still fail to stop tons of illegal drugs from crossing the border.

"They say they'll be as hard on the Mexicans as they are on us, but I'll believe it when I see it," says John Chappell, a long-hauler from Columbus, Ohio. "Why do all these drugs and stuff get through?"

Feds call for backup

US customs checkpoints have benefited from an expanded army of inspectors to help meet the demands of burgeoning border trade under the nearly two-year-old NAFTA. During the past year, Mexico's drastic peso devaluation has sent even more trucks North over the border, and more intensive drug, currency, and hazardous-products inspections at US ports of entry have forced federal officials to ask local governments for backup come Dec. 18, when the new regulations go into effect.

"DOT is asking us to assign four police officers to assist with truck inspections," says Laredo Assistant City Manager Carlos Villareal. "That's four officers a day that won't be patrolling our streets."

Concerns over the NAFTA trucking provision - which is designed to lower consumer prices by increasing transportation efficiency and competition - can be seen throughout the border states.

In Arizona, the campaign of Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan is skewering the new provision to play up the candidate's anti-NAFTA, pro-states-rights platform. In Geographically long and economically recovering California, worries are sharpest along the border and tend to focus on a potential impact on jobs.

At first, a trickle

"The closer you get to the border the more you hear about it, with some people worried about safety and others afraid that low-wage Mexican truckers are going to take their job," says Jay Van Rein, spokesman for the California Trucking Association in Sacramento. But any immediate impact will be a "trickle," he predicts, limited to cases where US and Mexican trucking companies already work together "and now have an opportunity to simplify their arrangement" by replacing the transfers they now do "with one straight shot."

But with nearly 65 percent of truck freight between Mexico and the US passing through Laredo alone, the focus of concern over the trucking provision has been in Texas. State Attorney General Dan Morales has been loudest in criticizing what he predicts will be a widespread failure by federal officials to properly inspect many of the 5,000 trucks that cross from Mexico to Texas every day.

Zeroing in on the one-fourth of those trucks that he says transport hazardous materials, Mr. Morales calls the border opening an invitation to rolling "Chernobyls and Bhopals." The generally heavier loads carried by Mexican trucks will also tear up Texas roads, he claims, costing Texans and the US tax dollars for repairs.

But despite a visit last week by US DOT Secretary Federico Pena to Texas, the state attorney general's office says inspection concerns have not been answered.

For decades, Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate in many towns in the immediate border area, and last month the Texas Transportation Commission continued this practice by exempting Mexican trucks from registration fees.

Still,the long-term effect of the Dec. 18 provision will be to gradually replace local American drivers with their cheaper Mexican counterparts, says James Giermanski, a professor of international trade at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

Threat to Mexican jobs

Mexican drivers don't see it that way. Citing what it believes is the provision's threat to thousands of Mexican trucking jobs, the National Chamber of Truck Transport is threatening a Dec. 18 work stoppage if the opening is not deferred. US trucking companies have the upper hand because of their newer equipment, higher efficiency, and advantages of scale, the chamber says.

"I used to have 35 tractors, but now I have 12," says Hector Bolanos, a Mexican customs broker with headquarters in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. "Despite the labor advantage we can't compete with the States" on efficiency and equipment standards, he says. Mexican transport companies will either form partnerships with US companies, he predicts, or will fold up the tent.

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