JIM LEHRER: The on-again, off- again plan to allow Mexican trucks on U.S. highways. Ted Robbins of KUAT-Tucson has our report.
TED ROBBINS: The stereotype of a Mexican truck: A rickety old vehicle with a cracked windshield bouncing down the highway, spewing diesel fumes, until it breaks down in the middle of the night. These pictures were taken in 1995. That was the year the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, was supposed to allow Mexican trucks to carry freight long distances on U.S. highways, and U.S. trucks were supposed to be allowed into Mexico. But just before the provision was to take effect, President Clinton declined to lift a long- standing moratorium. Ever since, it's been one delay after another.
MICHAEL JACKSON: It has been frustrating. It's been frustrating for industry. It's been frustrating for both governments.
TED ROBBINS: Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson is the number two man in the U.S. Department of Transportation. He blames the Clinton administration for upholding the 1995 moratorium under pressure from special interest groups. The Teamsters union feared U.S. truckers might lose their jobs replaced by lower-paid Mexican drivers. Safety groups feared hazardous vehicles on the highways. Environmental groups worried the Mexican trucks would pollute American air. The Bush administration lifted the moratorium in 2001, after deciding that most of those concerns had been addressed.
MICHAEL JACKSON: The administration's position is that we absolutely have an obligation under NAFTA to do this, and it's the right thing to do for commerce, it's the right thing to do under our treaty obligations, and we're proceeding in a deliberate and safe and effective way to do that.
TED ROBBINS: But opponents are not convinced the system is safe enough. They went to Congress and then to court to delay an open border. Under the current system, Mexican trucks, like this one carrying vegetables, have to transfer their loads to U.S. trucks no more than 20-miles inside the border. Karen Rasmussen of the Arizona Motor Transport Association says this system does not make economic sense.
KAREN RASMUSSEN, President, Arizona Motor Transport Association: The most expensive thing you can do to freight is touch it. Every time you do that, you add to the cost-- both of the carrier, and of the shipper, and the receiver. So it's not an efficient system the way it's operating right now.
TED ROBBINS: And ultimately, the consumer?
KAREN RASMUSSEN: Ultimately, the consumer.
TED ROBBINS: But Joan Claybrook says safety is more important than economics. Claybrook is president of Public Citizen, the group founded by Ralph Nader. Public Citizen successfully lobbied Congress in 2001, to enact a tough truck inspection law.
JOAN CLAYBROOK, President, Public Citizen: Our concern is not keeping trucks out, it's having trucks be safe and clean. That's our issue. We just want the American public to be protected.
TED ROBBINS: Congress appropriated money for inspection stations like this one at Nogales, Arizona. DOT officials inspect trucks, it would seem, as practice for the day when Mexican trucks can travel freely on this side of the border. But officials say they are also compiling a database of Mexican operators and their safety records. Paul de la Ossa is the Department of Transportation port supervisor.
PAUL DE LA OSSA, USDOT Port Supervisor: He's basically looking for is that something's not falling off here or that he's not leaking fuel, and that he does have the required tank that is supposed to be there.
TED ROBBINS: So what's the difference between this truck that's come in from Mexico versus on a truck that's based in the United States?
PAUL DE LA OSSA: Okay, there's absolutely no difference.
TED ROBBINS: Then Public Citizen, the Teamsters, and several other groups fought the NAFTA trucking provisions with another tactic. They went to court arguing that the government has not studied the potential effects of Mexican trucks on U.S. air quality.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: We have a lot more to lose by unsafe emissions, you know, spewing from Mexican trucks, you know, rolling time bombs essentially to come into the United States.
TED ROBBINS: Late last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed. The court ordered the Transportation Department to produce an environmental impact statement on the pollution issue. In the meantime, economic forces may be muting the safety and pollution issues. American trucking companies have been using the delays to buy ownership in Mexican trucking companies. Check the name on the truck crossing the border into the U.S.: Swift. Now look at the name on the cab: Trans-Mex, a Mexican company. Swift, the largest truckload carrier in the United States, now owns half of Trans-Mex.
JERRY MOYES: And with our arrangement we will own 100 percent of them by January of '04.
TED ROBBINS: Jerry Moyes is CEO of Phoenix-based swift trucking. He says his company is sinking money into the Mexican company, making its equipment much safer and less-polluting than its old trucks, and much more likely to pass border truck inspections. Moyes supports the original NAFTA agreement, which would open the border, because it will make his business more efficient.
JERRY MOYES: If the agreement is honored, we will allow them trucks to come up from Mexico City into the United States and switch out with the U.S. trucks where we presently allow them to Laredo or Nogales at one of the borders, we'll allow them to come on up into the interior a little further-- maybe to a Dallas or a Phoenix, something like that. But keep in mind we believe that free trade has to go both directions. We look forward to allowing Mexican carriers into the United States, but we certainly want the opportunity to take our trucks into Mexico.
TED ROBBINS: NAFTA is supposed to be a reciprocal agreement. As soon as Mexican trucks roll onto U.S. highways, U.S. trucks are supposed to be allowed on Mexican highways. Drivers we spoke with on both sides seem to like the idea. Instead of dropping his load at the border, Jose Padilla could drive it all the way to its destination in California. "I imagine as a driver," he says, "I would gain a little work. There would be more opportunity for all the operators." The typical long-haul Mexican trucker makes about one-third of what a U.S. counterpart makes. But U.S. drivers like David von Buskirk, who works for Jerry Moyes at Swift, say they're not worried about losing their jobs.
DAVID VON BUSKIRK, U.S. Truck Driver: Absolutely not. There's lots of truck driving jobs, and Jerry's going to hire people that are from the United States, that do a good job, that have the correct training.
TED ROBBINS: So far, fewer than 200 Mexican trucking companies have even applied for permission to haul cargo on U.S. highways. Deputy Secretary Jackson says that's because few Mexican companies have the financial resources to expand into the U.S. without help from American companies.
MICHAEL JACKSON: This is one of the great ironies of this debate. I believe and the administration believes that there will be a modest increase in the truck traffic that moves into the interior of the United States with this new opening. It won't be a flood.
TED ROBBINS: If the Department of Transportation appeals the court ruling on emissions, it will have to wait for the Supreme Court to act. And if it doesn't appeal, the DOT will have to conduct a time-consuming environmental impact statement. So despite some progress, it's still going to be awhile before Mexican trucks can roll farther than 20 miles on U.S. highways.
JIM LEHRER: Since that report was completed, the Department of Transportation has announced that 252 Mexican trucking companies now have applied for permission to haul cargo on U.S. highways.