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Administration may reinvent Mexican truck program

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration will try to reinvent a program to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways.

An 18-month-old pilot program that allowed a few Mexican trucks beyond a border buffer zone died when President Obama signed a sweeping $410 billion government spending bill on Wednesday. The bill barred spending on the pilot program.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Debbie Mesloh, said Obama told the office to work with Congress, the Transportation and State departments and Mexican officials to come up with legislation to create “a new trucking project that will meet the legitimate concerns” of Congress and U.S. commitments under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Obama’s nominee for trade representative, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, is awaiting Senate confirmation.

The U.S. prohibits most Mexican trucks from driving more than about 20 miles, or 75 miles in Arizona, beyond the border. The U.S. agreed to lift that ban after signing the 1994 NAFTA deal with Canada and Mexico.

Canadian trucks have no limits on where they can go, but most Mexican trucks can’t travel beyond a buffer zone along the southern border. The limits were imposed after lawmakers voiced safety concerns. But Mexico has long called it an unfair effort to protect U.S. jobs.

The previous pilot program allowed access for up to 500 Mexican trucks from 100 operators. It also allowed the U.S. to conduct inspections and other safety activities.

Under pressure from labor, safety and other groups, Congress cut off spending on the program in 2007. But last year, the Bush administration used a loophole in the law to keep it operating.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sponsor of the provision in the spending bill that ended the program, wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this month to say he doesn’t oppose Mexican long-haul trucks on U.S. roads, but wants them to be safe.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, cheered the end of the truck program.

“I am pleased that Congress has reclaimed its ability to have some bearing on the obligations contained in the surface transportation provisions of NAFTA and has voted for this step forward for highway safety,” Oberstar said.

The Mexican government has protested the trucks ban, and prohibits U.S. trucks from driving far into Mexico. It could take additional retaliatory steps, such as raising tariffs on U.S. goods.

In a statement after the spending bill passed, the Mexican Embassy said ending the pilot program “is not, and never has been, about the safety of American roads. It is about protectionism plain and simple.”

The embassy said 103 Mexican trucks belonging to 26 carriers participated in the program. Ten U.S. carriers with 61 trucks could ply Mexico’s roads.

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