A NAFTA arbitration panel may have finally broken the transport logjam at the US-Mexican border. The panel found that Washington's blanket ban on Mexican trucks moving farther north than the immediate border area violated the 1993 free-trade pact.
That's no surprise. Under the agreement, Mexicans were supposed to have access to border-state highways by 1995, and to all US roadways by 2000. Two things kept that from happening: concerns about the safety of Mexican trucks and drivers, and political opposition from the Teamsters Union (which fears job losses) and some advocacy groups.
Those factors kept the truck ban firmly in place during the Clinton administration. President Bush, however, is on record favoring the lifting of the ban and abiding by the letter of NAFTA. After all, Mr. Bush was governor of a state that thrives on cross-border trade. He now pledges to comply with the arbitration ruling.
But the administration is wisely emphasizing that compliance will not mean a weakening of safety standards. Mexican trucks are a real concern. Mexico has toughened regulations to be more in line with US safety rules and improved its enforcement. But more needs to be done.
On the US side, safety inspection teams at the border must be greatly beefed up. As Mexican trucking companies are given the go-ahead to use US roads (some 160 have applied for US approval) their rigs must be duly scrutinized.
The alternative to company-by-company approval and a genuine opening of the border is continued closure of the border to trucks and compensation to Mexico - to the tune of $2 billion a year.
The better route is to move toward fulfilling NAFTA's provisions, letting stronger US border inspections and stronger Mexican incentives to upgrade truck fleets do their part to enhance safety.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society