WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is allowing Mexican trucks to continue to travel deep into the United States despite what critics say is a congressional mandate to ban the trucks from U.S. highways.
Congress voted last year to halt funding for a pilot program that allows Mexican 18-wheelers to begin traveling freely into United States as part of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The Department of Transportation contends, however, that the congressional action permits the current program to continue while banning any new program.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the DOT agency that regulates the program, quietly acknowledged last week that the program is still under way, adding that it's issued permits to 11 Mexican companies with a total of 56 trucks. Mexican trucks previously were confined to a 25-mile border zone.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., in a letter Thursday to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, scoffed at that interpretation and called on the Bush administration to end the program immediately.
"The DOT response is both arrogant and wrong!" Dorgan wrote. "The Department of Transportation is making a serious mistake if it believes it is not required to abide by this legislation."
The 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents U.S. long-haul truckers, expressed outrage at the administration and vowed to press ahead with a lawsuit against the program, which is pending in a federal appeals court in San Francisco.
"We're not happy," Teamsters spokeswoman Leslie Miller said. "We believe they are breaking the law."
Under the program, launched this fall, up to 500 trucks from 100 Mexican companies could travel into the U.S. interior over the next year.
The agreement also allows 100 U.S. companies to send their trucks beyond a restrictive border zone in Mexico. Four U.S. companies with a total of 41 trucks have been cleared to travel into the Mexican interior.
More than 500 inspectors have been deployed to enforce safety, vehicle and driver standards, said Melissa Mazzella DeLaney, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
DeLaney said the Mexican companies had made 71 crossings into the U.S. interior as of Dec. 11. The U.S. companies, she said, have made 144 crossings into Mexico.
"It's something U.S. companies have never had the opportunity before to do," she said.
"There have been no incidents," DeLaney said of the Mexican trucks. "They are the most vetted, the most scrutinized and the most inspected trucks on American roads today."
She didn't have a cost breakdown but said the Transportation Department budget paid for the program.
With lawmakers in both parties widely opposing the initiative, Congress clearly intended to strip out money for the program in a $106 billion housing and transportation funding bill that President Bush signed Dec. 26, Dorgan said.
The legislation said: "None of the funds made available under this act may be used to establish a cross-border motor carrier demonstration program to allow Mexico-domiciled motor carriers to operate beyond the commercial zones along the international border between the United States and Mexico."
Dorgan released an opinion by Senate legislative counsel Polly W. Craighill asserting that the legislation was intended "to preclude the carrying out of any demonstration program, including the pilot program put into effect in September of 2007." Dorgan sponsored a funding-cutoff amendment that passed the Senate 74-24.
The latest furor over the controversial program erupted after Dorgan learned of the DOT statement, which received limited attention during the holiday season. Under the 2008 funding measure, the DOT said, it will "not establish any new demonstration programs with Mexico." But it added: "The current cross-border trucking demonstration project — established in September — will continue to operate in a manner that puts safety first."
The Bush administration and allies in Congress contend that the program will be monitored rigidly and is necessary to fulfill the 13-year-old free-trade agreement that expanded commerce among the United States, Mexico and Canada.