WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration can proceed with a plan to open the U.S. border to long haul Mexican trucks as early as next week after an appeals court rejected a bid by labor, consumer and environmental interests to block the initiative.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco late on Friday denied an emergency petition sought by the Teamsters union, the Sierra Club and consumer group Public Citizen to halt the start of a one-year pilot program that was approved by Congress after years of legal and political wrangling.
The Transportation Department welcomed the decision and said in a statement that allowing more direct shipments from Mexico will benefit U.S. consumers.
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement approved broader access for ground shipments from both countries but the Clinton administration never complied with the trucking provision. A special tribunal ordered the Bush administration to do so in 2001.
“This is the wrong decision for working men and women,” Jim Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, said in a statement after the court ruling. “We believe this program clearly breaks the law.” The Teamsters represents truckers that would be affected by the change.
The emergency stay was sought on grounds the administration’s pilot program had not satisfied the U.S. Congress’ requirements on safety and other issues. But the appeals court ruled otherwise.
The administration plans to start the program on September 6. Transportation Department officials hope to receive final clearance early next week from the department’s inspector general’s office, which is reviewing its safety aspects, and finalize details with Mexican authorities.
The Mexican government must grant reciprocal access to U.S. trucks under NAFTA. That provision is not expected to be a problem, regulators said.
Mexican trucks operating in the United States have for years been restricted to U.S. points near certain large border crossings where their goods are transferred to trucks owned by U.S. firms.
Under the pilot program, Mexican long haul trucking companies that have met safety, licensing, and other U.S. requirements will be allowed to operate their rigs throughout the country. Proponents say this will reduce costs and speed up shipments.
Trucking regulators said in a court filing the goal is to gradually accommodate 100 Mexican trucking companies by the end of the pilot program, or roughly 540 large trucks.
But opponents said those figures do not reflect the number of companies that could seek access to U.S. roads if the pilot is successful, which they said raises safety concerns.
“This (pilot) program is basically a show trial. They haven’t provided notice up front about who will participate. You just don’t know what the program will look like,” said Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, attorney for Public Citizen.
Public Citizen and the Teamsters still plan to proceed with a lawsuit they filed in federal court, challenging the Mexican truck program on broader grounds. That case will not likely be decided until next year.
Trucks from Canada have no operating restrictions in the United States.
Reporting by John Crawley