WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation will maintain a pilot program allowing Mexican long-haul trucks to operate across the country.

The move comes despite President Bush signing a $555 billion omnibus spending bill — including money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — last month that prohibits the use of the agency’s funds to establish a program allowing Mexican-based trucks to operate beyond restricted commercial zones in the U.S.

The White House interprets the bill as permitting the pilot initiative and barring any new programs. However, sponsors in Congress say it prohibits any such trucking initiatives.

The Bush administration implemented the pilot program last year to allow as many as 100 Mexican-based carriers to travel inside the U.S. Bush had tried for years to open the border to cross-border commercial traffic, a stipulation of the North American Free Trade Agreement enacted in 1994. But his efforts were stymied, until last year, by legal challenges over the safety of Mexican trucks.

The pilot program is supported by apparel importers looking to cut transportation costs by not having to transfer goods to U.S. trucks at the border. Importers shipped 3.08 billion square meter equivalents in apparel and textiles, valued at $5.7 billion, from Mexico to the U.S. for the year ended Oct. 31.

“In accordance with the 2008 omnibus appropriations act, the U.S. Department of Transportation will not establish any new demonstration programs with Mexico,” the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the program, said in a statement. “The current cross-border trucking demonstration project, established in September, will continue to operate in a manner that puts safety first, with participating Mexican carriers subject to all safety standards required by the 2008 omnibus bill and the department, while giving U.S. trucking companies new opportunities and U.S. consumers significant savings.”

The agency’s spokeswoman did not return calls and e-mails regarding clarification.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.), who authored the amendment in the Senate prohibiting the use of funds for the cross-border truck program with Mexico, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters last week, calling her response “arrogant and wrong” and urging her to end the pilot project immediately, as “mandated” in the omnibus spending bill.

This story first appeared in the January 8, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“The provision included in the omnibus spending bill was clearly written and designed to put the brakes on the current pilot program,” Dorgan wrote in the letter. “Failure to end the pilot program, I believe, will put the Department of Transportation in direct violation of federal law.”

Dorgan included a second letter to Peters from the Senate Legislative Counsel’s Office in an attempt to head off an anticipated defense by the DOT that the bill does not explicitly state that funds cannot be used for the “implementation” or continuation of the existing program.

Polly W. Craighill, legislative counsel to the Senate, wrote in the letter that the legislative history in the Senate shows that it was lawmakers’ intent and therefore the intent of the legislation to ban the use of funds for the existing cross-border truck program.

“We wish they would start enforcing the law rather than breaking the law,” said a spokeswoman for the Teamsters union, which represents many U.S. truck drivers. The Teamsters have a case pending before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco challenging the legality of the program and the safety of Mexican trucks.

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