The first U.S. and Mexican trucking companies received clearance last night to begin cross-border operations under the auspices of a one-year demonstration project overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

“This long-awaited pilot program will eliminate the three separate shipments necessary to move goods by truck across the border – a process that added $20 million to shipping costs in the month of May alone,” said John Hill, FMCSA’s chief administrator, in an evening phone conference with reporters. “This project should result in less traffic, less pollution, and significant [freight cost] savings.”

The Dept. of Transportation’s Inspector General’s office filed a key report with Congress at 8 p.m. on Sept. 6 confirming that FMCSA has taken the necessary steps to ensure the safe implementation of the cross-border program, said Hill. That was quickly followed by word that Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution of El Paso, TX, had become the first of 14 approved U.S. carriers to receive authority from Mexico to operate in its territory. Those two conditions allowed FMCSA to clear Transportes Olympic, based outside Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to operate on U.S. roads, Hill explained.

Hill stressed that FMCSA is going to great lengths to ensure Mexican carriers do not compromise highway safety. In fact, he said they are being scrutinized more closely than U.S. truckers. Transportes Olympic, for example, is one of 38 Mexican trucking firms that has undergone extensive pre-screening by FMCSA, including on-site safety inspections of trucks expected to be used on U.S. roads and drug tests of its drivers by U.S. labs. In fact, only two tractor-trailers out of Transportes’ fleet of 30 trucks and 70 trailers are allowed operate on U.S. highways, said Hill.

“We’re committed to 100% screening of all Mexican trucks and drivers before they cross the border – more than the 50% Congress required of us,” he added. FMCSA is working closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ensure all Mexican trucks cleared to participate in the program are inspected at the border. These trucks are free to use any of the 25 border crossing points between San Diego, CA, and Brownsville, TX.

Hill said FMCSA is also working closely with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriff’s Association and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance to ensure everyone is ready to inspect Mexican carriers. This includes watching for illegal cabotage—moving shipments to and from points within the U.S., which is forbidden under the demonstration program.

In the first 30 days, Hill expects 17 trucking companies from Mexico will be given operating authority. Going forward, up to 25 Mexican carriers per month will be allowed to operate on U.S. highways under the program (if they’ve successfully met all the safety requirements) until 100 carriers have been approved. Mexico will do the same for U.S. carriers.

Hill expects no more than 500 to 600 Mexican trucks will operate on U.S. roads in total under this program – each one cleared by either one of FMCSA’s 254 dedicated border inspectors or one of 500 state inspectors. “That’s a fairly significant workforce to watch over 100 Mexican carriers,” Hill said. “Compare that to the whole U.S., where we have 10,000 inspectors covering eight million commercial vehicles and 600,000 carriers.”

DOT has also set up a special independent panel – made up former Inspector General Ken Meade, former DOT Secretary Mortimer Downey and Congressman Jim Colby (R-AZ) – to assess the effectiveness of the pilot program, said Hill.

Hill argued that highway safety won’t be compromised by Mexican carriers. He pointed out that Mexican trucks operating in the 25-mile commercial border zone including the 800-odd Mexican carriers that hold full authority to drive anywhere in U.S. (grandfathered in from when trucking here was regulated prior to 1982) boast a 21% out of service (OOS) rate overall. That compares favorably with the 22% average OOS rate for U.S. carriers.

“Look I’ve been in law enforcement for 29 years – it’s all I’ve ever done – and I am personally committed to highway safety,” said Hill. “I would not be part of any program that wasn’t committed to highway safety. Keep in mind that U.S. carriers, once they have their insurance and authority, can start rolling, while we [FMCSA] verify they meet safety standards over the next 18 months. With Mexican carriers, we must verify all of that on the front end – they are being held to a very different level of compliance.”