The Last Mile: This time it's not about the trucks

This time it's not about
the trucks

Lost amongst the daily reports from Iraq is an international issue that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court — the question of whether or not to permit Mexican trucks to have access to the U.S. beyond the border region. A decision by the Court will certainly affect the logistics community, but the case itself is not about logistics issues.

The quick history is that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) included provisions to allow Mexican motor carriers to deliver goods to the interior of the U.S. and to pick up backhaul loads bound for Mexico. A ban on Mexican trucks put in place during the Reagan Administration remained in effect through the presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton. A ruling by international arbitrators saying the U.S. position was wrong failed to get action until George W. Bush honored the provisions of the NAFTA treaty and ordered the proper steps be taken to allow Mexican truckers the access that had been postponed for years.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) opposed allowing Mexican truckers into the U.S., fearing perhaps that they would become low-wage competition for Teamster jobs. The public face that opponents put forward was one of concern for safety. Later, after a required environmental impact study was completed, Public Citizen, a national non-profit organization, and others were able to convince a lower court to block access for the Mexican motor carriers by arguing the environmental impact was not adequately studied.

That's nice window dressing, but the real issues run much deeper. U.S. motor carriers have been concerned over equal treatment — and that means requiring Mexican motor carriers to pay their share of fuel and highway taxes for the infrastructure they use when running in the U.S. It also means obtaining comparable insurance and meeting other regulatory requirements that are part of U.S. motor carriers' operating overhead.

The fact is, until the U.S. permits cabotage for Mexican and Canadian truckers, neither are permitted to compete for domestic freight moves. So, the argument that Mexican drivers would compete for U.S. jobs is spurious. Without the ability to use domestic moves to reposition equipment for an efficient backhaul, Mexican, Canadian and U.S. carriers all face the same problem of costly empty miles any time they would haul a load very far beyond the border area.

The most efficient answer is to allow access to major distribution hubs where loads can be exchanged and everyone benefits. That might mean allowing Mexican trucks to drive to Dallas or even to Kansas City. It doesn't mean they'll be operating under the equivalent of 48-state authority.

So why was the Supreme Court involved? Look for further discussion of executive vs. legislative priority and whether presidential action on an international treaty takes precedence over an act of Congress. The next stop for opponents is Congress, where they’ll attempt to change the law.

Perry A. Trunick
executive editor

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June, 2004

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