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US-Mexico free trade on lorry transportation


from economist.com

ON SATURDAY September 8th, at 1am, a lorry from Mexico crossed into Texas at Laredo. It trundled through the darkness to just outside San Antonio, where the driver, Luis González, stopped for a rest. He slept, ate a sandwich, and checked his tyres. He left that afternoon for North Carolina with ten tons of steel.

It was a historic journey. Since 1982, Mexican lorries entering America have been confined to a buffer zone along the border, where they must transfer their cargo to American lorries. The 1994 North American Free-Trade Agreement said that Mexican lorries should have access to American roads, and vice versa. But that plan met resistance. Watchdog groups argued that Mexican lorries have lower safety and environmental standards than their American counterparts. American drivers worried about their jobs.

In February, despite protests, the Department of Transportation announced a one-year pilot programme that would allow up to 100 Mexican carriers access to America. (The initiative also allows 100 American carriers into Mexico.) The department's timing was unfortunate: America has been in protectionist mood this year. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters as well as two environmental groups and a citizens' watchdog sued to block it. A federal appeals court ruled against them earlier this month. Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards and Barack Obama issued statements opposing the programme. Hillary Clinton said she found the scheme deeply troubling. Farther from the mainstream, people worried that the lorries would be full of drugs and illegal immigrants, and that having Mexican lorries roaming freely through America would be another blow to national sovereignty.

The Bush administration said these concerns had been addressed. Under the rules of the programme, Mexican lorries are subject to inspection at the border—“every truck, every time”. Their drivers must abide by American trucking rules while in the country and demonstrate a basic grasp of English. Mexican carriers may not carry cargo between American cities, and will therefore not be competing directly with local carriers.

John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas who favours the programme, struck a more emotional note. He assured doubters that he would never allow an unsafe truck on his state's roads. He failed to convince: the Senate this week voted to cut off funding, following a similar House vote in July. But George Bush has said he will veto the spending bill Congress sends him. The fate of the initiative is uncertain.

Fate has not favoured the free-traders. On September 9th, the day after Mr González began his trip, a Mexican lorry crashed. It was travelling within Mexico, en route from an explosives plant to a mine, with a cargo of 25 tons of ammonium nitrate. The wreckage exploded in a giant fireball, killing more than 30 people. Mexican lorries are not allowed to carry hazardous material into America, but the tragedy hardly inspires confidence.


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