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AGENCY pushes tougher safety rules for Mexican trucks


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration has revamped its plan to ensure the safety of Mexican trucks traveling on U.S. roads, adding more inspectors at border crossings and tougher inspection procedures, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told Congress on Wednesday.

Several lawmakers expressed skepticism that the proposal could be in place in time to give the trucks access to all roadways by January, as Bush has pledged.

``This is a nightmare and we are not ready for this,'' said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., whose state receives a significant portion of Mexican truck traffic.

Mineta, testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Mexican trucks will be required to follow the same regulations as U.S. trucks.

He said the agency will require Level 1 inspections, which require inspectors to get under the vehicle and make a thorough safety check, and hire enough inspectors to staff all 27 border crossings.

Some of those details were not spelled out in regulations originally proposed by the agency, which plans to require Mexican truck companies to undergo a safety review before getting an 18-month permit to operate on U.S. roads. Permission will be provisional and carriers must undergo a safety audit for permanent operating authority.

But after about two hours of testimony, Mineta had not convinced skeptical lawmakers.

``I think this is a very ambitious program to get this done by the end of the year,'' said Sen. George Allen, R-Va.

Allen told Mineta that to get support for the administration plan, the agency will need to ``perform more duties than you think are necessary.''

Mexican trucks are now limited to a zone extending about 20 miles north of the U.S. border in four states. As part of his effort to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, Bush wants to extend that access to the entire country beginning next January.

Bush's proposal is favored by trucking companies and businesses that ship goods by truck. They envision broadened trade with Mexico. In opposition is the Teamsters Union, which worries about lost jobs.

In a blow to Bush's efforts to improve trade relations with Mexico, the House last month voted to block the Transportation Department from processing Mexican truck company applications and removed from the spending bill money Bush had requested for inspectors.

The Senate will debate cross-border trucking when it considers the transportation spending bill, possibly this week.

Bush has said he would veto the House legislation, but Mineta said the administration also is dissatisfied with parts of legislation passed by a Senate appropriations committee. That bill provides $100 million for safety measures, $15 million more than Bush requested. Mineta said some of the requirements of the bill would be difficult to carry out and could cost an additional $77 million.

Kenneth Mead, transportation department inspector general, said after the hearing that he also considers the administration plan ambitious, but that it is possible to have it in place by the January deadline.
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