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SUZANNE GAMBOA, Published September 11 2007

Senators move to stop Mexican trucks

WASHINGTON - Two senators want to ban Mexican trucks from U.S. roads, saying not enough has been done to make sure they are safe.

Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., want to strip funding for a program launched last week giving Mexican carriers full access to America's roadways.

Their proposal, scheduled for a Senate vote Tuesday morning, came the same day the first Mexican truck participating in the long-delayed free trade program delivered its cargo to North Carolina.

Republicans said they would oppose any plan to keep Mexican carriers out of the U.S. They said Mexico has more stringent trucking standards than Canada, whose carriers already have full access to U.S. highways.

"Can't we use some common sense here? This is not some enemy satellite on our border," said Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, adding that some critics want to make Mexico the "bogeyman."

The program allows up to 100 trucks to travel anywhere in the U.S. Since 1982, Mexican trucks were prohibited from going further than 20 miles into the U.S., except in Arizona, where the limit was 75 miles.

Transportes Olympic, the only Mexican carrier granted full access to U.S. roadways as of Monday, has told the Transportation Department it will use only long haul trucks made within the past three years on U.S. roads.

Melissa Delaney, spokeswoman for the Transportation Department, said there were no problems with the border crossing.

"Mexican trucks and drivers must meet safety standards that in many respects are higher than the standards for their U.S counterparts," said John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "It is unfortunate that some in the Senate would seek to deprive U.S. consumers of the significant savings, and U.S. truck drivers of the significant new opportunities that the cross-border trucking demonstration project is generating."

Dorgan said U.S. citizens want to be sure when they pull up or drive next to an 18-wheeler, the truck and its driver have undergone the same checks and inspections required under U.S. safety rules.

But an inspector general's report issued last week said U.S. officials checking Mexican trucks are only examining information made available to them by the carrier, he said.

Information concerning vehicle inspections, accident reports, insurance records and driver violations were not available and databases with such information are still in development, the report said.

That information is "very probative on whether it is a safe program," Specter said.

"We do want to have good relations with Mexico. We do not want to impede legitimate commerce, but safety is a very vital factor and there are good reasons to insist on safety and verification," he said.

Dorgan used as a prop an enlarged copy of a news report on a deadly crash in Mexico involving a truck laden with ammonium nitrate. Earlier in a news conference, he acknowledged little was known about the accident.

The truck in the accident was not headed to the U.S. and those participating in the pilot program cannot carry hazardous materials.

With the vote on Dorgan's proposal falling on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said he could not see how any patriotic American could continue allowing Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways.

Trucks from Canada and Mexico were to get unrestricted access to U.S. roads in 1995 under the North American Free Trade Agreement. But opposition from labor unions and safety groups delayed access for Mexican trucks.

A NAFTA arbitration panel overruled the U.S. in 2001, but lawsuits and lengthy negotiations with the Mexican government led to even more delays.

Mexico granted an El Paso, Texas-based carrier's trucks access to Mexico's roads last week in return for the U.S. access.

The amendment is S. 1789