WASHINGTON — After years of delays and legal challenges, the U.S.-Mexico border is slated to be open "soon" to two-way commercial truck traffic, stipulated eight years ago in NAFTA, according to a Department of Transportation official.

Meanwhile, in other cross-border trucking news, the Mexican government has opened seven more border crossings to U.S. textile and apparel truck shipments, bringing the total to 13. Last August, the Mexicans limited these shipments to six of the 27 commercial land crossings, in an unexpected move designed to curb transshipment of non-North American textiles and apparel.

The longer-standing trucking headache — the U.S. ban on Mexican trucks traveling freely throughout the country — is expected to be lifted by yearend or sooner, according to a DOT official.

President Bush decided last year to allow Mexican trucks to make deliveries in the U.S. if they are certified by the DOT as meeting American safety rules. Once the ban is lifted, Mexican officials have said they’ll allow U.S. trucks to ferry goods into their country.

Now, trucks must unload their trailers within a 20-mile zone in either country to be picked up by a carrier from the destination country. This process has added more than a day of transit time.

The added time is a factor not only for U.S.-bound imports — Mexico is the largest foreign apparel supplier with 13.6 percent of the market — but also for southbound goods. Last year, U.S. apparel makers trucked $1.98 billion in goods to Mexico. In addition, U.S. textile mills trucked $3.26 billion worth of goods to be made in Mexico into apparel for U.S. stores.

A DOT official, who declined to be named, said an exact date hasn’t been set for the U.S. to lift its Mexican truck ban, but said the "commitment is clearly there" for the border opening before yearend. Earlier, DOT officials said they expected the border to be open this summer.

The agency’s Office of Inspector General in June submitted a report to Congress saying new safety checkpoints and procedures at the U.S. border are almost complete. Submission of a positive report was one of the last hurdles to overcome before opening the border’s 27 commercial border crossings.Opening the border has met with resistance by the Teamsters Union, as well as consumer and environmental groups, which still have an outstanding legal challenge regarding truck emissions. The case isn’t scheduled to be heard until October in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif.

Meanwhile, even with the Mexican government opening more border crossings to U.S. textile and apparel traffic, there are delays. Shipments to border factories called maquiladoras are exempt from restrictions.

Stephen Lamar, vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said even though cut apparel pieces are supposed to be excluded under the Mexican policy, they’re being included. He said it’s common for these shipments to be rerouted to crossings deemed permissible, including the ports of Cancun and Veracruz and the airports of Chihuahua, Mazatlan and Mexico City.

"There is so much confusion," Lamar said. "The more you crimp the ability to move goods back and forth, the more likely people are to look for other alternatives."

The land points of entry in Mexico now open to apparel and textile shipments are Altamira, Ciudad Hidalgo, Ciudad Juarez, Ciudad Reynosa, Colombia, Tree, Matamoros, Manzanillo, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, Progress, Tijuana, Toluca.

Furthermore, Lamar lamented some of the busiest commercial entry points, like Aguas Calientes, Piedras Negras and Monterrey, remain closed to apparel shipments.

Meanwhile, Charles Bremer, vice president of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, said the entry closures haven’t disrupted textile shipments.

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