DOT IG report finds border inspections lacking

With implications for the debate over free trade and fast track trade negotiating authority, a report released today by the Transportation Department's inspector general found only a fraction of Mexican trucks crossing the United States border are inspected, and that 44 percent of those trucks were turned away due to safety violations.

While the Federal Highway Administration, formerly headed by now-Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, was responsible for overseeing the safety of trucks crossing the Mexican border, the agency has basically left safety enforcement to the states.

Although the IG report heaped praise on California for having a strong border presence that has resulted in fewer unsafe trucks entering that state, the other border states have only a part-time presence at the border, allowing unsafe Mexican trucks to enter the United States.

"With the exception of California, neither FHWA's nor the states' plans provide for an adequate presence of inspectors at border crossings," the inspector general's report said. "We concluded that far too few trucks are being inspected at the U.S.-Mexico border, and that too few inspected trucks comply with U.S. standards ... FHWA was relying on border states to provide the needed inspectors rather than planning for and providing federal inspection resources."

California, which accounts for 22 percent of cross-border traffic, assigned more inspectors-47 full-time, 5 part-time-to its border than Arizona and Texas combined-8 full-time, and 37 part-time. Only 13 federally funded inspectors are assigned to the entire Mexican border.

At the border crossing in El Paso, Texas, where 1,300 trucks cross every day, only one inspector is on duty and he can inspect only 10 to 14 trucks a day. Most inspectors work only during daytime working hours, leaving crossings with no inspectors at all during much of the day, an IG aide said today. Therefore, Mexican trucks most likely to fail a safety inspection cross the border at night or on the weekends.

Of the Mexican trucks inspected in Texas, 50 percent fail and are turned away-compared to 17 percent of trucks entering at the Canadian border, where safety enforcement is better staffed, the report found. The inspector general proposed three alternatives for increasing inspectors and enforcement; those alternatives cost from $4 million to $7 million.

Today's IG report comes one year before a deadline set by the North American Free Trade Agreement that would allow Mexican trucks unlimited access throughout the United States-a step opposed by U.S. labor unions afraid domestic truckers could lose their jobs.

The report tags responsibility for the safety situation on the FHWA, headed by Slater before 1997. "FHWA does not have a safety enforcement program in place that provides a reasonable level of assurance of the safety of Mexican trucks entering the United States, nor does it plan to establish such a program," the report said. A Slater spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.

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