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Anne Gearan

The Supreme Court removed the last legal roadblock to Mexican trucks rolling across U.S. roadways, siding with the Bush administration Monday in a long-running dispute with labor union officials, environmentalists and consumer advocates.

The fight, begun during the Clinton administration, had ground down to a last quarrel over whether a Transportation Department agency had to perform an air quality study. Opponents argued that Mexican trucks tend to be older and dirtier than American models.

Ruling on narrow procedural issues, the court's unanimous decision said the president has authority to let the trucks in, and a federal agency responsible for truck safety has no say in the matter. Thus, the justices said, the agency was under no obligation to study environmental effects from opening the border, as a lower federal court had ordered.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration "has no ability to countermand the president's lifting of the moratorium or otherwise categorically to exclude Mexican motor carriers from operating within the United States," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

Labor and environmental organizations have long fought expansion of Mexican trucking inside the United States despite guarantees this country made when it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement more than a decade ago.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta welcomed the ruling and said American companies, consumers and truckers will benefit.

"We are committed to a comprehensive approach to guarantee that trucks and buses operating within the United States are in compliance with all applicable safety and environmental standards," Mineta said.

Neither Mineta nor other administration officials could say precisely when the first trucks would roll.

Mexican trucks have been banned from all U.S. roads outside a 20-mile commercial border zone since 1982. NAFTA, signed in 1993 by the United States, Mexico and Canada, allowed Mexican trucks and buses full access to U.S. roads beginning in 2000. The Clinton administration, under pressure from labor and consumer groups, refused to lift the moratorium.

Mexico had fumed about the moratorium for years before NAFTA was signed and now estimates that the 22-year moratorium has cost it more than $2 billion. Mexico successfully challenged the moratorium through a free trade tribunal, and President Bush said in 2001 that he would allow trucks access to all U.S. highways.

Under NAFTA, Mexican trucks and drivers can travel between Mexico and the United States, but cannot ship goods between two points within the United States.

Mexican trucks make approximately 4.5 million trips to the border every year, and the value of goods crossing the border tops $160 billion annually.

As a practical matter, Monday's ruling may mean little. The Bush administration already had begun the $1.8 million study ordered by a federal appeals court and was expected to complete it soon. The study could only delay, not prevent, the border opening, and the White House had already said that it would let the trucks roll when it was free to do so.

Opponents of truck expansion included the consumer group Public Citizen, the Teamsters union and others. A lawyer for the coalition of labor and environmental groups said the court left many questions.

"Today's ruling did not address the serious air pollution concerns posed by tens of thousands of trucks coming over the border," lawyer Jonathan Weissglass said. "Nor did the court address how border states will be able to comply with federally mandated air quality standards. It will now be up to Congress to address these issues and protect the public health."

The case is Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen, 03-358.Associated Press: