WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for thousands of Mexican trucks and buses to begin delivering goods and passengers throughout the United States, ending a decade-long dispute that pitted environmentalists against NAFTA and became a sore point in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Siding with President Bush, the justices, ruling 9-0, threw out a court order that had blocked the free flow of Mexican trucks on the grounds that the often older diesel-burning vehicles would belch more dirty air in already polluted areas of California and the Southwest.
Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California said the nation's anti-pollution laws required U.S. officials to study the impact on the environment before opening the borders to older trucks from Mexico. But the Supreme Court set aside that ruling, and said the president has the power to enforce the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Because the president, not [the motor vehicle regulators], could authorize cross-border operations from Mexican motor carriers, [the chief executive] did not need to consider the environmental effects arising from the entry," said Justice Clarence Thomas in a narrow ruling.
The White House welcomed the decision. "The president has been committed to opening the border with our friends to the south in a way that ensures safety and helps American workers," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman.
Yesterday's ruling is a victory for American and Mexican businesses, both of which say they expect to benefit from lower shipping costs. Trade between the two countries has soared since NAFTA was enacted in 1994, and Mexico has become the second-biggest U.S. trading partner with $236 billion in cross-border shipments last year, most of it by truck.
But the ruling was criticized by environmentalists and by truckers on both sides of the border, wary of new competition. Mexico will likely lift its retaliatory ban on U.S. trucks entering Mexico, and small Mexican trucking companies fear they won't be able to compete with modern, well-financed American fleets. Modest-sized U.S. carriers, meanwhile, fear being undercut by low Mexican wages on the American side.
"We don't want them here. and they don't want us there," said one U.S. industry official. "The only ones who are going to benefit are the big boys. They are the ones pushing this."
As many as 34,000 Mexican trucks will operate in the United States once the policy takes effect, the government estimates.
NAFTA required free movement of commercial vehicles across borders. But President Bill Clinton balked at lifting the rules that had prohibited Mexican trucks from operating in the United States, noting safety and environmental concerns.
In 2001, Bush announced that he would lift the barrier and permit the Mexican trucks and buses to operate in the United States, so long as they complied with federal safety standards.
But environmentalists and public health officials called the ruling a defeat for clean air, warning of more pollution and more cases of asthma among children, particularly in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston.
About 4.5 million northbound trucks cross the border each year from Mexico to the United States. The new policy will allow trucks from south of the border to ship their loads anywhere north of the border.
Armando Freire, owner of Dimex Freight Systems Inc. in San Diego, said he would have to consider subcontracting much of his work to Mexican drivers, who he said make about $75 a day compared to the $150 to $200 he pays his U.S. haulers.
"A lot of the U.S. people are going to be out of a job," said Freire. "I can't stay in business without being competitive."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.