WASHINGTON — Mexican truckers face one last obstacle before the U.S. opens its roads to them.

Following President Bush’s opening of all U.S. highways to Mexican trucks last month — a move that brought the U.S. into compliance with NAFTA provisions — a coalition of environmental, labor and trucking-industry groups who have sued to close the border asked a California court for an emergency stay to keep the trucks within their current limit of 20 miles from the border.

Under the current system, Mexican trucks have transferred their cargo, including billions of dollars worth of apparel, to U.S. truckers who haul the loads to destinations in the U.S.

Mexico is the number-one supplier of apparel and textiles to the U.S. For the year ended in September, Mexico shipped $4.32 billion worth of apparel and textile to the U.S., accounting for 12.1 percent of the overall U.S. import market, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Bush is now permitting Mexican trucks to receive operating authority to deliver international cargo to the U.S., and shipments originating within the U.S. back to Mexico — a move that brings the U.S. in compliance with NAFTA rules. Mexican trucks will not be permitted to deliver goods point to point within the U.S.

The Department of Transportation estimated 63,000 Mexican trucks crossed the border last year, making about 4.3 million crossings, mostly at Texas. The numbers refer to the cabs that pull trailers — it’s possible for one cab to cross the border, drop its trailer and return several times per day.

Most of the border crossing is handled by companies that specialize in short hauls across the 20-mile border region.

The administration’s efforts to open the border to Mexican trucks in the immediate future could be thwarted, however, if the coalition suing the government wins its case.

Labor, trucking and environmental groups, which sued the government in April to stop the trucks from operating beyond commercial zones in the U.S., sought an emergency stay from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Dec. 3, following Bush’s action.

In seeking an emergency stay, the coalition was attempting to prevent the Bush administration from processing applications from Mexican carriers until it completes a full review of the impact the trucks will have on air quality."The trucks in Mexico are older and do emit more pollution and are not subjected to the same emissions standards as our trucks are," claimed a spokesman from the Teamsters union, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The court has taken the case under advisement and said it would consider the issue further once the Department of Transportation was ready to grant permits or when the administration and the Mexican government reach agreement on what role U.S. safety inspectors will play in Mexico.

Meantime, the DOT has collected 146 applications from Mexican carriers requesting permits for travel beyond the commercial zones, according to a department spokesman.

Of the 146 Mexican motor carriers that have applied to begin cross-border long-haul service into the U.S., 90 are ready for safety audits, according to the spokesman.

The DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates interstate truck and bus safety, will be granting operating authority only to Mexican motor carriers that comply with all U.S. safety standards and insurance requirements.

The DOT spokesman dismissed claims made by the coalition on the environmental impact Mexican trucks will have on the U.S.

"We believe we conducted environmental reviews that complied with all applicable environmental requirements in issuing our regulations," he said.

The Teamsters opposed passage of NAFTA.

Joan Claybrook, president of Ralph Nader’s consumer watchdog group Public Citizen and also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said her group is concerned about whether Texas will comply with the Clean Air Act since 66 percent of all Mexican trucks pass through the Texas border.

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