Bordercrossing infrastructure lags trade growth

Aerial view of the Progreso Texas Port of Entry with passenger vehicles and freight vehicles
By MEXICONOW Staff Report


The search for new ways to fund border projects is a challenge as trade between the United States and Mexico has multiplied over the past two decades under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with its annual value now exceeding US$531 billion.

But still, growth has not spurred a commensurate rise in government funding for border crossings. 

Even though trade has boomed, Ports of Entry (POEs) have not kept the pace. Furthermore, tight federal budgets are making this situation even harder and has forced planners in both countries to search for ways to fund new crossings and to upgrade the existing ones.

Public-private partnerships, transportation grants, donations, and crowdfunding are among the alternatives the U.S. – Mexico governments have found helpful to fund infrastructure on their shared border.

“Funding infrastructure in general is a huge challenge, and funding infrastructure for the border is an even bigger challenge,” said Laurie Berman, district director for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

A 2006 study by U.S. Customs and Border Protection concluded that US$6 billion was needed to modernize U.S. land ports of entry, but the agency has only received US$2 billion.
A shipment of green hot chile awaits inspection at the Columbus New Mexico port of entry.
Garrett Wright, head of the CBP Donations Acceptance Program – a five-year pilot instituted in 2014- said some investors are willing to finance infrastructure along the U.S. – Mexico border to accelerate trade, but money has been scarce.

In years to come, the limited federal funds that are available for border infrastructure are more likely to be spent on maintaining existing ports of entry than on the construction of new ports and the new border crossings would be financed differently from the traditional way, experts said.

“We have known for several years that government funding has been declining,” said Denise Moreno Ducheny, a senior policy adviser at the University of California in San Diego and a member of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC). While there is some budgeted federal money for border infrastructure, San Diego competes with numerous other border communities for funding.’

As a result, many border cities and even companies are looking for new ways to fund border infrastructure as a way to attract more companies to each region of the shared border and at the same time to accelerate trade.

U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke said the lack of federal funding has made public-private partnerships increasingly critical to funding expansions and improvements at ports of entry all along the border.

“I think many of us have concluded that there is very little hope for big-picture, large-scale federal action and big infrastructure projects coming from D.C. right now,” O’Rourke explained. “Even though we are one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, we decided to finance the improvements ourselves, because we could not wait for the federal government to get its act together.”
Nuevo Laredo World Trade Bridge
The City of El Paso has been paying for CBP agents’ overtime for almost 4 years. To do so, the local government raised the toll for pedestrians, vehicles and commercial trucks heading to Ciudad Juarez. The money goes into a special fund to pay the service of the agents, which allow more lanes to be opened during peak hours.

Other 5 cities in the U.S. approved pilot Public –Private Partnerships (PPP) with CBP to reduce the wait times at their ports of entry.

Under another alternative funding program is CBP’s Reimbursable Services. Since 2014, the agency has opened the door for private or government “stakeholders” to pay for additional inspection services for customs, immigration or agricultural processing.

One of the companies working with CBP under this program is Dell. Last year, 
U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that it would expand hours of operation for south-bound commercial traffic at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry as part of a public-private partnership with Dell Computers. The company is funding four additional hours for southbound commercial traffic Monday through Friday for a full year.

“By collaborating with strong private sector partners, such as Dell, we can capitalize on that momentum and increase trade, create new jobs, and diversify New Mexico’s economy,” said Senator Heinrich, who has long supported the expansion in commercial hours at the POE. “I’m proud to have championed Dell’s request to fund additional hours for all commercial vehicles at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry and will continue to work with Commissioner Kerlikowske to boost and facilitate interstate commerce in New Mexico, ensure our ports are operating at full capacity, and keep our nation safe and secure.”

He explained this public-private partnership will help advance the safe and efficient development of the border region add increased capacity will help grow the New Mexico Borderplex, provide a viable alternative to the often long wait times for commercial traffic crossing to Mexico via El Paso and strengthen national security. 

The Reimbursable Services Program allows the CBP Commissioner to enter into partnerships with the private sector and government entities to provide new or expanded services on a reimbursable basis. According to CBP, this authority enables them to support additional requests for services, while managing rising volumes of travel and trade that are critical to our economy.
Inspection at the Calexico West Land Port of Entry
But not only planners in the U.S. are looking for new alternatives to fund infrastructure along the shared border, but also the Mexican government.

“What we are planning is a binational public-private partnership,” said Carlos Bussey, director of highway projects for Mexico’s Communications and Transportation Secretariat. “It’s easy to say that, but there are many aspects that have to be taken into account for that to take place.”

According to the Wilson Center Mexico Institute research all levels of government, as well as the business community and non-governmental organizations, have a role to play in supporting cross-border transportation infrastructure and staffing. 

The document states new federal legislation (section 560 and 559 authority) offers state and local government and the private sector a new framework through which to get involved in the funding of port of entry infrastructure and staffing. 

“Inefficiencies at the ports of entry act as a drag on regional economic development and social cohesion. This means that without adequate infrastructure, staffing, or strategies for efficient and secure border management, the border can divide as much as it unites,” the study concludes.

In a recent forum celebrated in San Diego, planners from the U.S. and Mexico concluded one of the more innovative funding approaches is using crowdfunding, the solicitation of contributions from a large number of people, typically through the Internet. 

Even though this funding might seem appropriate, experts said crowdfunding can best be applied to projects that are smaller, and have social, economic and environmental impacts such as bike lanes, community parks and pedestrian improvements not a big project such as a brand new port of entry.