LAST MONTH, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater led a tour through Central America and the Caribbean. During that trip, he talked about the importance of building a seamless transportation system throughout the Americas. He said this was President Clinton's personal goal.
Slater's comments stand in stark contrast to the Clinton Administration's actions over the last five years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. Actions speak louder than words, and recent steps taken by the Clinton Administration have a strong anti-trade tone.
Even Canada, our largest trading partner and one of the NAFTA signatories, has been affected. In February, US Customs adopted new rules to allow Canadian trucks to carry freight if they are returning to Canada or going to pick up cargo for export to Canada. Freight that originates in Canada can be transported anywhere in the United States, regardless of what tractor hauls it.
However, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has effectively blocked the Cabotage changes from taking effect. Laws enforced by the INS prohibit Canadian drivers from making point-to-point deliveries within the United States. Designed decades ago to protect US jobs, the laws are enforced by INS with the support of the Department of Labor.
A Canadian driver can be deported if his logbook shows that he hauled a load from one point to another in the United States. In some cases, this may be someone who simply took over after another driver ran out of hours. His rig also can be confiscated.
Moving to the south, NAFTA provisions that would open up states on either side of the US-Mexico border to international truck traffic still have not been implemented. January 1, 1996 was the date when truckers were to be allowed access to Mexican border states (with reciprocal access to US border states for Mexican truckers). Six years after the signing, all signatories were to be allowed full cross-border access for international shipments.
The United States unilaterally blocked implementation of the cross-border provisions. The postponement was issued by the Transportation Secretary on orders of President Clinton. Little progress has been made in resolving the delay. Basically, NAFTA doesn't really exist today from a transportation perspective.
That wasn't what everybody expected when the NAFTA negotiations began at the start of the 1990s. This was a treaty that was supposed to fully unite the economies of the three countries that make up North America. The potential is still there, but much work is needed.
The transportation provisions must be implemented, and this is something that can be done by President Clinton in a matter of minutes with a stroke of a pen. Cabotage is an outdated concept, especially for land transport. Congress needs to write it out of existence.
More money must be spent on the highways that carry the bulk of the NAFTA traffic. Existing roads are deteriorating, and new roads are needed in many areas. The money is already available through the fuel taxes that support the highway trust fund, and we see little reason for new taxes and fees on the trucking industry.
Border crossings must be simplified. The technology that would enable a seamless flow of cargo from the Yucatan to the Yukon exists, but it is not yet operational. We need to move beyond the automated Customs clearance pilot projects and get the systems into the field.
Only then will we begin to see full realization of the promise of NAFTA. Only then will the United States be able to prove that it is serious about promoting a seamless transportation system for all of the Americas. Until then it's just talk.