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Texas highways open to Mexican trucking
Driving Down Borders

Predictions of dangerous Mexican trucks overrunning American roads are a bit farfetched, said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

On June 7, 2004, a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the nation's borders to Mexican trucking, overturning a ruling by a federal judge and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco requiring an environmental impact study.

"The media made it sound like killer Mexican trucks would be hitting our roads within days," Mange said.

Most Mexican trucks are safe, and even with the ruling, it's unlikely Mexican trucks will be on Texas roads soon, she said.

Do not pass go
Over the last 15 years, the United States' trade with Mexico increased 400 percent, according to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). About 80 percent of that trade, nearly $230 billion in goods, travels over Texas roads each year.

Before the Supreme Court decision, Mexican trucks that entered the United States were licensed to operate only in commercial zones, no more than 20 miles from the border, Mange said.

These short-haul trucks, which carry goods back and forth across the border, must meet all U.S. safety requirements, insurance and licensing standards, and are reviewed by local, state and federal officials, said John Adams, president of the Laredo Development Foundation. When trucks begin traveling further into the United States interior, they must still comply with all U.S. safety and licensing requirements, Adams said.

"You have to stop at the border," Adams said. "There is no 'pass go' or special pass. We're still going to stop and inspect everything."

To the border and back
Because Mexican truckers were only allowed to travel in the commercial zone, a system of short-haul trucking known as the drayage system developed. Once in the U.S. commercial zone, short-haul truckers trade goods with American truckers, who bring raw materials from throughout the United States to be manufactured in Mexico. The American truckers exchange the raw materials for finished products that they then deliver to businesses in the United States.

For example, an American trucker will bring wire from Delphi Packard Electric Systems in Warren, Ohio, to be converted into electrical harnesses for General Motors cars. The American trucker will exchange the trailer of wire for one from Mexico with electrical harnesses, and take it to Detroit to the assembly line, said Rafael Garcia Jr., Laredo bridge director.

Partnerships between the United States and Mexican trucking companies make this exchange quick and efficient, which keeps auto prices down, Garcia said.

"How efficient we are here is a direct connection to how much people will pay for their car," Garcia said.

Garcia expects the short-haul system to remain intact for some time after the roads are open to Mexican trucking, in part because Mexican companies will be reluctant to hire bilingual drivers and purchase more expensive trucks.

"All of this is controlled and dictated by business and the bottom line," Garcia said.

Mexican trucking companies will want to use top-of-the-line trucks when entering the United States because it is more expensive to repair a truck that breaks down in the United States than in Mexico, Garcia said.

It will also take time for Mexican trucking companies to develop new trucking contracts with U.S. businesses, Mange said.

"When they go farther into the United States, they will want to take something in and take something back," Mange said. "They can't go back empty. They will have to develop contracts in new areas."

As trucks that travel farther into the United States gradually replace short-haul trucks, Garcia said the trucking industry will adjust accordingly.

"It's a slow process, not because we want it or don't want it--it's economics," Garcia said.

Zero impact
A booming trade with Mexico due to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement prompted DPS to hire additional inspectors and commercial vehicle enforcement troopers over the last few years, Mange said. She doesn't expect the trucking decision to significantly increase border crossings.

"We anticipate that when the border first opens that we're talking about fewer than 500 additional trucks a year," Mange said. "We've increased our staffing along the border by about 300, so we feel confident that we can deal with whatever is coming down the road."

TxDOT does not expect to need additional staff either, said Mark Cross, a TxDOT information specialist.

"We really don't anticipate that there will be much of an increase in spending," Cross said. "Mexican truckers get their moving authority from the U.S. Department of Transportation, so they would probably only come to us to register the vehicles."

So far, no Mexican motor carriers have registered with Texas, Cross said.

Road wars
Though many Texas officials don't anticipate the trucking decision will have a major effect on the Texas trucking industry, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the world's largest labor unions, does not believe the decision was in the best interests of the country.

"We are opposed to the opening of the border to Mexican trucks as the rules and regulations currently stand," said spokesman Bret Caldwell. "Right now, Mexican trucks and driver's standards do not meet the requirements we have in the United States."

Though state officials say Mexican motor carriers will be held to the same standards as U.S. motor carriers, Caldwell said the standard is not enforced.

"For the drayage trucks, they are inspecting less than 5 percent of the trucks that cross the border," Caldwell said. "Nobody's putting money into this effort. It's not going to be long before people are going to figure out how to beat the system."

According to the DPS, every truck that crosses the border is visually inspected and weighed, but fewer than 10 percent are x-rayed.

The Teamsters also fear that lower wages will drive jobs away from American motor carriers, Caldwell said.

"If a multinational employer doesn't have to pay workman's compensation if they hire someone from Mexico, then who do you think they are going to hire?" Caldwell said.

Adams disagrees that jobs will be lost to Mexican motor carriers.

"We have a shortage of drivers and a shortage of equipment," Adams said. "We are a Teamster town. We need drivers. We need trucks. And it's not like Mexico is going to make up the difference."

Safe passage
As the largest commercial port of entry for Mexican goods in the United States, more than 9,000 trucks cross the border at Laredo every day, Adams said. In 2003, nearly $80 billion in goods were hauled across the border, more than twice the second-largest Mexican commercial port of entry at El Paso, which handled $38.6 billion in trade.

With that much traffic moving through the city, Adams said, safety comes first.

"We have 58,000 kids in kindergarten through 12th grade [in Laredo]," he said. "We are very concerned about safety on our streets. It's not some Wild West town. We understand the impact of all of this."

Angela Freeman