staff and wire reports

“The country should be ashamed of how they treat the trucking industry,” said an exasperated Susan Marley-Reagle, co-owner of a Cochranton-based long-haul trucking company.

She was reacting to news that the U.S. Department of Transportation has opened the border with Mexico to allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to freely haul their cargo anywhere in the United States.

Reagle wasn’t alone in her frustration Thursday. Dozens of truckers waved signs and American flags at a border crossing to protest the program.

The Transportation Department was expected to begin issuing operating permits in the pilot program as early as Thursday, starting with 17. The program is designed to study whether opening the U.S.-Mexico border to all trucks could be done safely.

As of Thursday morning, 38 Mexican firms were poised for U.S. permits, said Melissa Mazzella DeLaney, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.

The Teamsters union and Sierra Club oppose the program and sued to try to stop it, arguing that there wouldn’t be enough oversight of the drivers coming into the United States from Mexico and public safety would be endangered.

Government lawyers countered the program was a necessary part of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and said trucks enrolled in the program would meet U.S. regulations.

A federal appeals court ruled Aug. 31 that the Bush administration could move ahead.

NAFTA requires that all roads in the United States, Mexico and Canada be opened to carriers from all three countries. Since 1982, Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate only within a 25-mile zone along the border. There, they transfer loads to U.S. trucks to go elsewhere in the country.

Dozens of truckers led by the Teamsters mixed with some anti-illegal immigration activists to protest near San Diego’s Otay Mesa border crossing, some flashing signs that read, “NAFTA Kills” and “Save American Highways.”

Business was uninterrupted, said Lt. Hector Paredes of the California Highway Patrol, which inspects about 3,000 trucks a day at the crossing.

“We’re already inspecting Mexican trucks and will continue to inspect them the same way,” Paredes said. “These trucks already haul product from Tijuana to San Diego. Now they will be able to go beyond San Diego.”

Marley-Reagle, co-owner of the Longbeard Express of Cochranton, agrees with the protest, saying the program “is certainly not going to help” her business.

She and her husband are the only employees of the company, which has gone from three trucks down to one since 1995. “It’s terrible (that) the politicians are taking all our jobs away. They talk about truck safety, but they (Mexican trucks) are junk trucks and junk equipment. There is no safe equipment.”

In addition, she questions how Mexicans who might not be fully literate in English are going to be able to drive trucks in America and “read signs. Shame on our government,” she added.

Marley-Reagle said trucking businesses are already having difficulty surviving in light of the high cost of fuel. “People try to get us to haul stuff at the price when fuel was $1 a gallon,” she said.

The local company hauls dry goods all over the country. “My first husband started the business and before he died in 1995, he made me promise to keep the business going,” she said. “We are trying.”

Meadville Tribune reporter Jane Smith contributed to this story.

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