Dozens of truckers rallied at Mexican border crossings in California and Texas Thursday to protest a pilot program to allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul their cargo anywhere in the United States.Carrying signs reading “NAFTA Kills” and “Unsafe Mexican Trucks,” a few dozen protesters circled in the heat for two hours at Laredo’s port of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“What do we want? Safe highways. When do we want them? Now!” they chanted.

The U.S. Transportation Department issued the first permit Thursday to Transportes Olympic, based in a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico. It won the permit after Mexico granted authority to Stagecoach Cartage & Distribution Inc. of El Paso, Texas, to travel anywhere in Mexico.

Both companies can cross the border immediately but may not do so for several days while they determine new routes, said John Hill, who runs the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.

“What we’re hearing from the carriers is they could be ready to go as soon as days from now,” Hill told reporters on a conference call from Washington.

The U.S. plans to give as many as 25 Mexican firms permission by the end of September and add another 25 companies each month until hitting 100 by the end of this year under the one-year program, Hill said.

Mexico has also committed to allow as many as 100 U.S. firms anywhere in Mexico by the end of this year, he said, and 14 are poised to receive permission.

So far, 38 Mexican trucking firms have been prescreened to go anywhere in the U.S., Hill said.

The Teamsters union, Sierra Club and watchdog group Public Citizen had sued to stop the program, arguing there wouldn’t be enough oversight of drivers, but a federal appeals court ruled the Bush administration could move ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

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