The nation's chief transportation official said Wednesday foes of the pilot program to let Mexican trucks drive anywhere in this country are providing misinformation about its effects on security and safety.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said the Senate was wrong in its vote Tuesday to cut off funding for the program, which just got running a week earlier. The House of Representatives already has passed a similar measure.
And Peters, an Arizona native, hinted that President Bush might veto the bill if it isn't changed, even though it would mean nixing the entire $106 billion transportation funding bill.
"Every Mexican truck, every Mexican driver, every Mexican trucking company that participates in this limited one-year demonstration program has to meet every requirement that every U.S. truck, every U.S. driver, every U.S. trucking firm has to meet,'' Peters said, adding there are "no exceptions.''
"Their load will be checked, their credentials will be checked, their inspection will be checked, their licensing will be checked, their hours of service will be checked,'' she continued.
Peters said claims by foes, ranging from the Teamsters Union to various environmental groups, are designed to "frighten Americans ... by throwing false things out there.''
Peters would not say outright whether the president will veto the measure if it comes to his desk in its current form. But when asked about the future of the pilot program if the measure becomes law, she said "I can pretty much guarantee you that's not going to happen.''
The transportation chief suggested the administration's main weapon in this fight is time: The longer the program continues, the better the chances of Congress changing its mind.
"While this program continues, and while we continue to demonstrate that this program can and is operating safely, there has to be a conference between the House and the Senate bill,'' she said. And after that it has to come back to both chambers for a final vote.
The pilot program covering up to 100 Mexican trucking firms is the first step toward the administration finally complying with provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to open the roads of the United States, Canada and Mexico to the trucks of each other's countries. Now, Mexican trucks cannot travel more than 25 miles from the border; items destined for further north must be reloaded onto domestic carriers.
Peters, speaking to the Arizona Association of Realtors, also chided members of Congress who want to use "the very tragic bridge collapse'' in Minneapolis to hike the federal gasoline tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, by a nickel.
"While we certainly need to improve and expand our transportation infrastructure, it is both inaccurate and irresponsible to claim that our infrastructure is unsafe, that it's crumbling beneath our very feet,'' she said. And Peters said the cause of that mishap is yet to be determined, adding there is no evidence that the mishap was caused by lack of inspection or maintenance.
Peters also said such a hike for bridge repairs would be unfair to Arizona motorists who live where the spans are better maintained than some other states but would be forced to pay for repairs elsewhere.
"That's not right,'' she said.
Peters also continued her perennial push for states to build toll roads and, in particular, convert some lanes of existing freeways to a pay-to-use basis as a method of dealing with congestion. She said if just 5 to 10 percent of motorists were to use the toll lanes it would improve overall traffic flow far more than simply adding more free lanes on freeways.