By  on May 16, 1994

WASHINGTON -- The hours-long traffic backups in moving merchandise at the U.S.-Mexico border aren't about to vanish overnight, but steps are being taken to initially reduce the problem with an eye to solving the nightmare by 1997.

At hearings in border towns this week, an administration task force plans to float a list of recommendations for building bridges, toll roads and coordinating Customs and other services at border crossings.

The goal is to come up with a plan to use in talks with Mexico in developing a cross-border transportation blueprint. Definite dates are not set for these talks with Mexico, but they are expected to be held this year. As the third partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada is also part of the study, although border problems with it are considered far less severe.

"If you've got all your paperwork in order, the line can still easily be four hours at the border," said Allen Wiener, policy analyst in the Office of International Transportation and Trade at the Department of Transportation.

Freight forwarders and shippers of textiles and apparel -- products considered among the most technical and time-consuming to process at the border under NAFTA rules -- say that delays of two weeks to get a shipment into Mexico aren't uncommon.

"We've decided it's easier to fly everything," said Jeff Daley, manager of Intercontinental Trading, Inc., Minneapolis, which produces private label rugby shirts and other cotton apparel in Mexico for mass merchandisers. While using air transportation is double the cost of trucking, it's worth the price to make on-time deliveries, Daley said.

The border-crossing horror stories the multi-agency Task Force on Border Infrastructure and Facilitation is trying to fix are partly related to increased commerce with Mexico. The task force recommends adding Customs and Immigration officials at crossings to handle the new traffic over the next year and pay for them with increased user fees.

The knottier and costlier problems involve construction, which in days of federal spending cuts is considered practically prohibitive. In addition to local governments helping to foot the bill, the task force recommends the businesses that use the roads pay the cost.

"Pricing of border-crossing services will more closely reflect all of the social costs of those demanding the services," the task force said in a recent report.A prime example of the border's inadequate road system and lack of coordinated planning between the U.S. and Mexico is at the Laredo, Tex., crossing, Wiener said. There are three bridges in Laredo proper and a fourth constructed by the Mexican government outside of town, which is infrequently used because of its hefty tolls and the lack of connecting highways on the Mexican side. Traffic, thus, gravitates to the in-town crossings, where there is almost constant congestion.

Attacking the border infrastructure is just one of the numerous logistic problems facing businesses that want to take advantage of free trade. Regulations governing the nationality and other elements of trucks ferrying goods are also of great concern. Trucking was an issue considered second in importance only to investment during the talks for the free trade pact, said Robin Lanier, vice president for international trade and environment with the International Mass Retail Association.

One recent change to NAFTA's strict treatment of trucking is an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to allow U.S. trucks to drive 12 miles into Mexico. A memorandum of understanding was worked out at a meeting of government transportation officials held two weeks ago in Washington. The pact still needs to be finalized and this is expected within two months.

Now, southbound trailers must be unhitched at the border and hooked to a Mexican truck. The opposite is true for northbound traffic. By the year 2000, though, truck traffic can move freely between all three NAFTA countries, according to the original treaty.

The 12-mile liberalization, which holds true only for the Mexican side, is intended, in part, to speed traffic to and from assembly plants, or maquiladoras, which comprises much of the trade between the two countries, particularly in apparel, electronics and automobiles. Many of these are located near the border.

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