A U.S. SUPREME COURT ruling last week is causing some to raise the ominous - but questionable - prospect of thousands of Mexican long-haul trucks belching emissions as they lurch hazardously down U.S. byways.
The ruling clears the way for U.S. and Mexican trucks, under the North America Free Trade Agreement, to carry loads into each other's nations - ending one of the last major barriers to fulfilling NAFTA. Trans-border trucking was to begin in the 1990s, but it was held up by the Clinton administration and then by the lawsuit that rode on environmental and safety fears about the older, less-regulated and more-polluting Mexican truck fleet.
The outcome may be a lot less dire than some predict:
Trans-border trucking is apt to develop fairly slowly; officials in Texas, the initial destination for most Mexican trucks, expect fewer than 500 long-haulers the first year.
Mexican long-haul firms crossing the border will face U.S. regulatory audits; trucks and drivers will have to meet U.S. license, safety, operating and insurance tests. More such inspections await at the border.
Opening the border to long-haulers should end much of the current "drayage" system by which short-haulers ferry trailers across the border, where they're transferred within 20 miles to domestic long-haulers. This ought to improve border-town safety and pollution, because Mexico's drayage fleet is twice is old as its long-haulers.
Mexico's long-haul fleet is only two years older than the U.S. fleet (7 years to 5 years); the trucks are built to U.S. manufacturing standards, which are to dramatically tighten in a few years. Experts say financial risks would discourage Mexican firms from trying to deliver costly goods on long-haul routes in run-down rigs.
But a lot more pollution remains likely from the older Mexican long-haul fleet. California, the only state to test heavy-duty truck emissions, has found that Mexican trucks fail at twice the rate of U.S. trucks. The solution is for the other three border states - Arizona, New Mexico and Texas - to also set up emissions tests and stiff fines for all big trucks, U.S. and Mexican.
If and when the first Mexican truck causes a major accident on a U.S. road, there will no doubt be outcries. But there's a lot to gain. U.S. long-haulers can expand their routes into Mexico. Mexican producers can better capitalize on their one major advantage over such cheaper producers as China. Both sides ought to see savings.
In the end, U.S. road safety and air quality will benefit if this leads to more thorough and rigorous tests of all trucks, Mexican and U.S., starting in the American Southwest. Any standard can be required of Mexican trucks and drivers, just as long as the same is required of all U.S. trucks and drivers.