Washington (AP) - The Obama administration Thursday released a proposal for re-opening U.S. roads to Mexican trucking companies, describing it as a starting point for negotiations aimed at resolving a longstanding dispute between the two nations.
The Department of Transportation proposal lays out in general terms conditions that Mexican long-haul truck carriers would have to meet, including a safety audit, U.S. emissions standards and driver background checks.
The proposal leaves a timetable and specifics on how many trucks would be allowed to enter the U.S. from Mexico to be resolved by negotiations, which are expected to begin very soon, transportation officials said.
U.S. truck drivers oppose giving Mexican carriers access to the U.S. They say Mexican trucks don't have to meet as stringent safety and environmental standards as their U.S. counterparts, which gives them an economic advantage.
"I am deeply disappointed by this proposal," International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a statement. "Why would the DOT propose to threaten U.S. truck drivers' and warehouse workers' jobs when unemployment is so high? And why would we do it when drug cartel violence along the border is just getting worse?"
Mexico has protested the lack of access as a violation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. In March 2009, after Congress failed to renew a pilot program that let a limited number of Mexican trucking companies haul freight beyond a 25-mile U.S. commercial zone, Mexico placed higher tariffs on 89 U.S. products. In August, Mexico added new products to the list after the U.S. failed to present a proposal for resolving the trucking issue.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said producers of potatoes, apples and pears in her state have been particularly hard hit.
"We are depending on the administration to work quickly and forcefully to convince Mexico to remove the barriers it is imposing on our agricultural exports," Cantwell said in response to the proposal.
U.S. industry officials also welcomed the proposal.
"We can't say the Mexican trucking dispute is over, but we can now say that, at last, the end appears to be in sight," Doug Goudie, the National Association of Manufacturers' trade policy director, said in a statement.
But independent truckers said drug-related violence in Mexico will likely keep their members from transporting goods south across the border, making an increase in access to the U.S. by Mexican carriers a one-sided deal.
"U.S. truckers would be forced to forfeit their own economic opportunities while companies and drivers from Mexico, free from equivalent regulatory burdens, take over their traffic lanes," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade association for truckers.