News Releases

Statement of Chairman Patty Murray - Hearing on Cross-Border Trucking with Mexico

Mar 08 2007

Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development & Related Agencies

Today we're examining cross-border, long-haul trucking with Mexico, and I want to thank all of our witnesses for sharing their insights with us this morning.

I'm disappointed that one of our scheduled witnesses is not here today. The Transportation Undersecretary of Mexico will not be testifying this morning. The Mexican Government has now decided that his appearance would not be appropriate. That's unfortunate because I believe he could have provided important insights this morning. The government of Mexico has offered to make the Undersecretary available for private meetings with Senators on this topic at some future time.

This subcommittee has a long history with this issue, as does the full Senate. When we debated the 2002 Transportation Appropriations Bill, the entire Senate was tied up with this issue for almost half a month.

I want to offer some quick background on how we got here, and what I hope we'll learn today. Back in 2001, after a ruling by a NAFTA panel, the Bush Administration announced its plan to implement the cross-border trucking provisions of NAFTA and to open our Southern border to Mexican trucks to travel anywhere within the United States.

The Bush Administration took this stand despite numerous findings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO); the DOT Inspector General, and others that there were numerous and significant safety risks that needed to be addressed. Those safety risks included, findings that:

  • Insspecting Mexican trucks coming across the border;

  • The DOT did not have an adequate number of safety inspectors, and the inspectors they did have were not adequately trained;

  • There was not adequate property at the southern border to allow DOT inspectors to place Mexican trucks out-of-service for safety deficiencies;

  • There was no mechanism in place to ensure that Mexican truckers were complying with U.S. hours-of-service laws;

  • There was no way to validate whether the commercial drivers licenses used by Mexican truckers were authentic and up-to-date;

  • There were not adequate facilities at the Mexican border for the DOT to conduct an adequate number of truck inspections;

  • There were not scales at the Mexican border to determine whether Mexican trucks were adhering to U.S. truck weight limits;

  • There was not adequate data available to inspectors to determine whether Mexican trucking companies crossing the border had an acceptable safety record; and

  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was years behind in publishing numerous rules that were absolutely essential if an adequate safety regime was ever going to be enforced.

In the wake of the Bush Administration's announcement, the House of Representatives -- which was then under Republican control -- voted by a 2-to-1 margin to place an amendment on the Transportation Appropriations bill that prohibited any long-haul Mexican trucks from coming across the border. President Bush quickly threatened to veto the bill.

So, in the wake of President Bush's veto threat, Senator Shelby and I drafted a very comprehensive provision to address the many critical safety concerns surrounding Mexican trucks without including an outright prohibition on Mexican trucks entering our country. Our provision included dozens of reasonable safety requirements that the DOT and the Mexican authorities would have to meet before long-haul Mexican trucks could have access to our entire interstate highway system. We sought to address each of the many concerns raised by the DOT Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and others.

We were on the Senate Floor for two weeks. During that time, the Senate took four cloture votes and voted on eight separate amendments dealing with the issue of Mexican trucks. In the end, we succeeded in getting the Murray-Shelby compromise off the Senate floor because our provision was balanced and addressed the problems head-on. Rarely has the Senate debated an aspect of a Senate Transportation Appropriations bill so thoroughly.

Tragically just weeks after our bill got off the Senate floor, the Nation experienced another event that would greatly inform our debate. We experienced the horror of September 11, 2001. When we got to conference much later that year, our compromise was included with slight modification as section 350 of the final Transportation Appropriations bill. And from that day forward, the Department of Transportation and the Mexican authorities began working to comply with each of the provisions in Section 350.

Two weeks ago, the Bush Administration announced that, in their view, they had now fulfilled every aspect of Section 350, and they were ready to open the Southern border to long-haul cross-border trucking. However, they did not announce that they would be opening the border to each and every Mexican commercial vehicle seeking to operate throughout the United States. Instead, they announced a one-year pilot project with special restrictions.

Under this pilot project, certain safety precautions would be even more stringent than those required under Section 350. Certain commercial vehicles, namely buses and trucks carrying hazardous materials, would not be allowed to participate. As I look at how this pilot project is structured, I'm concerned that DOT may be deliberately allowing only the top Mexican truck companies to participate in a pilot project simply to skew the results so the outcome looks better.

If you're only looking at the "best of the best," you might not get an accurate picture of what full cross-border trucking will look like. That makes me wonder if this pilot project is really designed just to produce a pre-ordained conclusion. It also excludes some categories of motor carriers like buses and trucks carrying hazardous materials. We need to hear exactly how DOT eventually plans to ensure the safety of these cross-border vehicles as well.

A meaningful discussion of safety and security cannot begin and end with Section 350. That legislation was written more than five years ago. In our new post-911 world, we have learned a lot more about terrorist treats and how to prevent them. We have also learned a lot more about illegal immigration and the methods used to smuggle citizens into the U.S. For example, in May of 2003 70 illegal immigrants were stuffed inside a tractor trailer and were being transported to Houston. 19 of the 80 people suffocated. Less than three weeks ago, 40 people were discovered in the back of a tractor trailer in Texas. Thankfully, they were all alive.

This morning's hearing will also focus on the economics of cross-border trucking. We need to explore why U.S. trucking firms are facing delays in accessing Mexico. We are told that Mexican firms will have full access to the U.S. market in just a few weeks, but that U.S. firms will have to wait until half of the year-long pilot project is over before they can enter Mexico. That doesn't sound like equal access to me.

Perhaps the most important question we need to address this: What happens after the Administration's proposed one-year pilot project? Should we assume that after one year the border will be opened to all long-haul Mexican trucks? Is one year an adequate period of time to determine whether there has or has not been unacceptable safety risks?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is not famous for doing anything quickly. Is that the agency that will be evaluating the success of this pilot program? If so, what criteria will they be using? There is certainly reason to question whether this agency can adequately evaluate a one-year pilot project when you consider the fact that certain requirements of Section 350 do not kick in until 18 months after the first truck crosses the border.

In the course of learning more about the Administration's pilot project, I received a copy of the official Record of Discussion that was initialed by both Mexican and U.S. authorities. It spells out broad parameters of the anticipated pilot project. And there's one very revealing section, which makes it crystal clear that the new agreement anticipates that, after one full year cross-border trucking without any restrictions will commence. If the purpose of the pilot project is to determine if we can do this safely, why is the result already agreed to by both governments? Again, it leaves me to wonder if the demonstration project is more "show" than scrutiny.

While some witnesses today might like to keep us focused just on the Administration's so-called one-year pilot project, this subcommittee needs to get the full picture of what happens one year from now when the border is fully opened. I will be asking some detailed questions about this document and what the Administration intends to do after the pilot project is completed, and I expect to hear complete answers.

I, like many of my colleagues in the Senate, voted for NAFTA. I believe in the economic benefits that expanded trade can provide to our country. I see those benefits first-hand every day in my home state of Washington. I know how trade supports and creates jobs, but I also know that safety must never take a back seat to economic prosperity. When we first debated this issue in the Senate back in 2001, I argued that we could have both safety and economic growth. Today's hearing will hopefully reveal whether the Bush Administration and Mexican officials have done what they need to do to make that possible.