WASHINGTON — Washington lawmakers and agricultural representatives are hoping that a proposal announced Thursday by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood soon will end retaliatory tariffs on American exports to Mexico.
The Mexican government announced in March 2009 that it would impose tariffs on a lengthy list of American exports after Congress killed a pilot program that allowed a limited number of Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways.
Because Mexico is a key export market for several Washington crops, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican representing the Mid-Columbia, joined efforts to convince the Obama administration and LaHood to try to resolve the cross-border trucking dispute.
The proposal released by LaHood's department is an "initial concept document" for a phased plan that would allow cross-border long-haul trucking between the United States and Mexico, and addresses oversight, safety standards, vehicle emissions and other concerns raised following the pilot program.
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Transportation officials described it as a "starting point in the renewed negotiations with Mexico."
"I appreciate the transportation department taking this important step toward solving a serious problem for Washington state agriculture," Cantwell said. "The current tariffs are harming our potato, apple and pear producers, and we are depending on the administration to work quickly and forcefully to convince Mexico to remove the barriers ... on our agricultural exports."
She said she is looking forward to reviewing the proposal's full details, and working with LaHood and the U.S. trade representative to end the tariffs.
A formal proposal that would include a public comment period is expected to be announced in coming months, according to the transportation department.
LaHood called lawmakers on Thursday to tell them about the new proposal.
"Secretary LaHood's call was the first encouraging news I've heard from this administration since these tariffs were imposed nearly two years ago," Hastings said. "While I must still review the proposal, the fact that a framework finally exists and negotiations with Mexico are under way is promising. I will continue to work with the administration and local growers to ensure that a solution is finalized and implemented as quickly as possible."
The initial tariff list included such key Washington crops as potatoes and cherries, causing millions of dollars in losses to growers and food processors. The Mexican government adjusted the tariff list Aug. 18 to reduce the potato tariff from 20 percent to 5 percent, but added a 20 percent tariff on apples.
David Douglas, a Pasco apple packer and shipper and member of the Washington State Apple Commission, said Mexico is the No. 1 export market for Washington apples.
The tariff has resulted in growers getting less money for their exported crops because of the higher costs of selling to Mexico, he said.
"Certainly our whole industry has felt the impact," he said.
Murray called on the Mexican government to stop the tariffs now that a possible solution to the dispute has been presented.
"I have been working closely with farmers and growers across Washington state to fight against these unfair tariffs that are killing jobs and hurting the local agriculture industry," Murray said. "Now that this proposal has been put forward, I am strongly urging the Mexican government to end their harmful tariffs immediately."
Douglas said apple growers and shippers are just starting the bulk of their exports to Mexico, which typically come about 90 days after the fall harvest, and hoped LaHood's proposal would bring a speedy end to the tariffs.
"The sooner they can get it resolved the better," he said. "We want to ship our product into Mexico tariff-free. That's our goal."
* Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; email@example.com