WASHINGTON (AP) — Transportation Secretary Mary Peters surrounded herself with some well-known U.S. exports _ corn, rice and Jack Daniel's whiskey _ to dramatize her warning Monday of economic losses if Mexican trucks are kept off U.S. roads.
Peters is fighting in court against a law that sought to end a pilot project allowing Mexican trucks greater access to U.S. roads.
The North American Free Trade Agreement gave Mexican trucks the access beginning in 1995. But the U.S. only opened the roads to a few trucks when the pilot program began last September.
Long-standing opposition from labor and safety groups had kept the trucks off most U.S. roads. Without the program, Mexican trucks are confined to about 25 miles beyond the border where goods they bring are picked up by a U.S. truck driver to deliver throughout the U.S.
Peters' predictions came the day before a Senate committee's hearing on the program. Congress tried to stop the program by stripping money for the project from the Department of Transportation last year.
''Should Congress ... end the cross border trucking, Mexico has every right to impose fees and tariffs on the very goods we see before us this morning and many more,'' Peters told a news conference. Before her were tables loaded with apples, ham, soybeans, rice, eggs, canned chile and meat, beef, a milk carton, bottles of Jack Daniel's whiskey and other products.
Todd Spencer, vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, called Peters' claims ''economic fear-mongering.''
''The program is supposed to work both ways across the border, and yet there are very few signing up on either side,'' Spencer said in a statement. ''Big businesses want the cheap labor, but for a number of reasons trucking companies on both sides of the border don't want to get involved.''
The latest numbers from the Department of Transportation show 18 Mexican carriers with 62 trucks and six U.S. carriers with 46 trucks are participating in the program. Up to 500 trucks from 100 Mexican carriers can participate.
Mexican trucks have made 322 crossing into the U.S. interior and U.S. trucking companies have made 683 crossings into Mexico.
James Hoffa, International Brotherhood of Teamsters president, said he doesn't buy Peters' argument that Mexico will sanction U.S. goods with higher tariffs in retaliation. Mexico has a $70 billion trade surplus because of NAFTA and ''they'd be foolish to do it,'' Hoffa said.
Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said Mexico is keeping its options open.