MEXICO CITY -- Mexico and the United States agreed in principle Thursday to open U.S. highways to Mexican long-haul trucks, ending a lingering safety dispute that prompted Mexico to impose more than $2 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exporters.
"After nearly 20 years, we finally have found a clear path to resolving the dispute over trucking between our two countries," President Obama said at a White House news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at his side.
The agreement calls for Mexico to lift 50 percent of its retaliatory tariffs immediately while Mexican truckers undergo safety, language and driver training.
Obama said that he would move ahead "in a way that strengthens the safety of cross-border trucking, lifts tariffs on billions of dollars of U.S. goods, expands our exports to Mexico and creates jobs on both sides of the border."
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings said the announcement falls short of what the area's agriculture-based economy so desperately needs.
"This administration has had almost two years to resolve this issue, and I encourage President Obama to conclude these negotiations and bring an end to these tariffs immediately. Washington state growers and processors simply cannot afford any more delays," Hastings said in a statement.
The agreement takes a major step toward removing a crushing burden on Washington farmers, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
"Resolving this dispute will boost Washington exports and agricultural jobs. With the removal of these barriers, Washington farmers would be better able to compete fairly in the Mexican market," she said in a statement.
But Teamsters union President Jim Hoffa charged that the agreement "caves in to business interests," adding that "Mexican trucks simply don't meet the same standards as U.S. trucks."
And a group representing 152,000 independent truckers said the agreement would make their struggle to survive amid a sour economy even more difficult.
"Simply unbelievable," Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said in a statement. "For all the president's talk of helping small businesses survive, his administration is sure doing their best to destroy small trucking companies and the drivers they employ."
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that binds Mexico, the United States and Canada authorized U.S. and Mexican carriers to cross the border, but Washington imposed a ban after the Teamsters union and its allies in Congress claimed that Mexican trucks were unsafe.
Mexico later won a NAFTA dispute settlement saying the ban violated the treaty, but it didn't impose retaliatory tariffs until 2009.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Association praised Thursday's move, while the Teamsters said an accord would bring danger to U.S. highways.
"It is long past time for the United States to live up to its trade commitment and allow cross-border trucking services. This delay put more than 25,000 jobs at risk," the chamber's president, Thomas J. Donohue, said in a statement.
A trucking agreement would end "job-killing tariffs" by Mexico, he added, and offer "certainty to trucking companies and shippers throughout North America."
Hoffa, however, said the accord wouldn't benefit U.S. trucking companies.
"Given the drug violence, there's no way a U.S. company would want to haul valuable goods into the Mexican interior," Hoffa said.
A White House statement said the two nations agreed on "a phased-in program built on the highest safety standards."
Once a final agreement is reached, Mexico will reduce punitive tariffs by 50 percent, removing the remaining 50 percent when the first Mexican truck is granted permission to enter the U.S.
Mexican truckers will have to abide by U.S. motor-safety standards, undergo periodic screening for illegal drug use and comply with U.S. rules on how many hours each day they can drive.
The agreement will require approval from Congress.