NEW YORK – Department of Transportation officials and the U.S. trade representative’s office are in Mexico this week negotiating final details of a renewed Mexican truck demonstration project with the goal of allowing foreign long-haul loads to roam U.S. roads by summer.

The starting point for negotiations between Mexico and the United States was a “Concept Document” the DOT published on its website called “Phased U.S.-Mexico Cross Border Long Haul Trucking Proposal.”

The George W. Bush administration launched a highly controversial demonstration project, but in March 2009, President Obama signed the $410 billion Omnibus Funding Bill that included provisions withdrawing funds from the DOT with the goal of terminating the program.

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Congressional critics during the Bush administration had argued that the DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were unable to provide assurances that Mexican trucks and their drivers would operate safely in the U.S.

Mexico still lacks a reliable federal system of conducting background checks before it issues commercial driver’s licenses. There also is evidence Mexican trucks and drivers operate without complying with the drug testing standards, driver physical requirements and safety inspection procedures that U.S. truck drivers are forced to meet.

But when the demonstration project was closed down, Mexico retaliated with $2.4 billion in tariffs on some 90 U.S. products, making it clear Mexico did not intend to lose the trucking war under the North American Free Trade Act.

Now a sticking point in the discussions is Mexico’s insistence that another demonstration project like the Bush-era “pilot program” will not be sufficient for it to lift the sanctions.

Instead, Mexico wants the Obama administration to agree to open U.S. roads to Mexican long-haul rigs under a plan that could not stopped once again by congressional action.

The DOT’s present plans are to operate under existing statutory authority and proceed with a phased-in pilot program that may run for a maximum of three years. After that, the DOT would be required to evaluate the success of the program before granting long-haul authority to additional Mexican carriers.

A DOT spokesman told WND that the current Obama administration plan is to publish a Federal Register notice describing the Mexican truck pilot program once the negotiations with Mexico have been concluded.

The DOT currently is in the process of identifying available dollars to fund the Mexican truck phase-in pilot program, and it plans to go to Congress only if the program negotiated with Mexico demands additional resources that only Congress can authorize.

Otherwise, the Obama administration’s plan in working with Congress appears to be an effort to build public relations support rather than to set the stage for new legislation that would directly reverse the funding prohibition on continuing the Bush-era project that Congress placed in the 2009 Omnibus Spending Bill.

Nor is it clear that Democratic Party members of Congress who fought hard against the Bush-era program would fight equally hard against an Obama administration plan, even though allowing Mexican trucks to operate freely within the U.S. is almost certain to represent an economic threat to the trucking industries the Democratic Party may need as financial supporters and voters in the 2012 presidential election.

A spokesman for Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., told WND that he had requested that Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, hold hearings on the proposed Obama administration truck plans.

But in an interview with InsideTrade.com, DeFazio suggested that Mexico has managed to split the congressional coalition that opposed the Bush-era program in the 111th Congress.

DeFazio suggested that Mexico had hurt his Oregon constituents by imposing a retaliatory tariff of 20 percent on Christmas tree exports.

As an indication that his concerns about Mexican truck safety were capable of being assuaged by Obama administration transportation officials, DeFazio said he was willing to accept Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s proposal to install electronic on-board recorders, or EOBRs, to monitor Mexican truck drivers according to hours-of-service rules applied to U.S. truck drivers.

DeFazio told InsideTrade.com that it was hard to judge the degree of support the Obama administration’s Mexican truck pilot program will have in the new 112th Congress, largely because it is unclear what position the newly elected Republican members, including tea party advocates, will take on the issue.

He feared that if Mexican drivers are allowed to operate in the U.S. it would lead to outsourcing of U.S. trucking services to Mexico.

The Mexican truck issue became rancorous during the last two years of the Bush administration as Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters fought off repeated efforts by Congress to confine Mexican trucks to a narrow 20-mile commercial area north of the southern border.

WND reported that after the Mexican truck project had begun, an examination of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database revealed hundreds of safety violations by Mexican long-haul rigs on U.S. roads under the project.

WND also reported that in an argumentative Senate hearing in March 2008, then-North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan in tight questioning got Peters to admit that Mexican drivers were being designated at the border as “proficient in English” even though they could explain U.S. traffic signs only in Spanish.

In the tense hearing, Dorgan accused Peters of being “arrogant” and in reckless disregard of a congressional vote to stop the Mexican trucking demonstration project by taking funds away.

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