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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This month, a Mexican truck carried a load of construction equipment from Monterrey, Mexico to Garland, Texas. That may sound unremarkable but it was the first truck allowed on U.S. highways since NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, authorized it almost two decades ago. It took that long because labor and political interests delayed the program. NPR's Ted Robbins says now that its begun those same forces are trying to stop it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The Port of Entry, Nogales, Arizona is in the midst of a massive upgrade to ease congestion caused by up to 1,500 Mexican trucks crossing each day. Nearly two-thirds of the produce consumed in the U.S. and Canada during the winter comes through here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS)

ROBBINS: These Mexican trucks stop at warehouses near the border to transfer their loads to U.S. trucks. The way it's long been done. Gary Hufbauer says that adds cost.

GARY HUFBAUER: You know, it's probably 3, 4, 5 percent, depending on the kind of product you're shipping.

ROBBINS: Hufbauer is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. He says letting these trucks on U.S. highways is long overdue and would help North American commerce.

HUFBAUER: Like this is the biggest single barrier to integration of the U.S.-Mexican market.

ROBBINS: That's a trade expert's view. Ask Jim Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union, and he says the cross-border trucking program will put thousands of trained U.S. drivers out of work.

JIM HOFFA: And what we have is a double standard of people that are going to make maybe one-third of what American drivers make, if that, and there's no record of who these people are. They're not in the database. They don't keep logbooks from the time they get to the border.

ROBBINS: Mexican truckers probably will be paid less than U.S. truckers, but NAFTA requires that Mexican truckers are certified, along with their companies. And there's currently a shortage of U.S. truck drivers. But Hoffa says there are also safety issues.

HOFFA: It's about the fact that these unsafe trucks are going to be unleashed on the American highway. We think it's a big problem. There hasn't been any progress in the past 10 years, and we're back where we started from.

ROBBINS: In fact, things have changed in the last decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING BRAKES)

ROBBINS: That's a Mexican truck having its brakes tested by a Federal Highway Safety Administration inspector at a Nogales facility built in 2004. The Department of Transportation says every Mexican truck is already held to the same safety and pollution standards as U.S. trucks. So far, only a couple of Mexican companies have asked to drive on U.S. highways, but Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California says he doesn't trust Department of Transportation inspectors to do their jobs in the future.

REPRESENTATIVE DUNCAN HUNTER: If you take that out 10 years, where we have 1,000 or 5,000 trucks coming through, to think that our bureaucracy will be able to handle that in the same thorough way that they handle it now, I think is ridiculous.

ROBBINS: Hunter is sponsoring a bill in Congress which would put the cross-border trucking program up for review in three years. Peterson Institute economist Gary Hufbauer predicts that in 10 years, Hunter's issues will be a memory.

HUFBAUER: I think if you give me a decade, I think it will be as big as it is with Canada, and also we'll have no more friction.

ROBBINS: Hufbauer says eventually Mexican trucks in the U.S. will operate as seamlessly as Canadian trucks do now - unless politics get in the way. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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