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Lawmakers Back New Mechanism to Fund Port Improvements

Republicans and Democrats from Texas’ congressional delegation have come together to file legislation that would allow for public-private partnerships to fund port infrastructure improvements and staff increases.

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A bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers has filed legislation that would allow private and local money to be used for port infrastructure and to hire additional officers at the nation’s international bridges.

U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin; Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso; Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; and Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, announced Wednesday that they filed House Resolution 1108, the Cross-Border Enhancement Act, which would allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection to enter into public-private partnerships to raise funds for projects that would facilitate trade.

The agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is charged with overseeing the legal movement of trade and people across ports. Under the measure, it would partner with either local governments or private entities to pool money for improvements, new projects and additional staff.

It is a companion bill to a measure filed in January by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Cornyn filed the same measure in 2012, and in addition to the partnerships, his 2013 bill would also require the General Services Administration to review additional financial proposals.

The movement by the U.S. House members comes just weeks after the federal budget cuts known commonly as sequestration forced the government to begin furloughing CBP employees, as many as 2,750 across the country, for weeks at a time.

“Because of the crucial role CBP plays in supporting the efficient and effective flow of goods between our two countries, we must leverage every available resource to make sure that CBP has the tools it needs to do its job well, keep lines short and move goods and people across the border efficiently,” Cuellar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a news release.

Mexico is Texas’ largest trade partner and the United States' third-largest overall. In 2012, more than $229 billion and $86 billion in trade passed through the Laredo and El Paso customs districts, respectively, according to U.S. census data analyzed by WorldCitya Florida-based company that uses U.S. census data to track trade patterns.

In January alone, Laredo saw more than $18.4 billion in trade pass through, while El Paso saw more than $6.8 billion.

“I represent a district that runs 800 miles along the Texas-Mexico border and includes five points of entry,” Gallego added. “I’m happy to support avenues that modernize our ports, improve security, and facilitate trade and commerce."

“Our land ports of entry must be secure and they must provide for the free flow of commerce," added McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "Allowing CBP to partner with local governments and private stakeholders will maximize the value of limited taxpayer resources, and it will enable the private sector, which drives our economy and creates jobs, to proactively improve the efficiency of cross-border operations.”

But while the news is being greeted as positive step forward, some border officials are wanting more and wanting it sooner. On Tuesday, the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and private-sector leaders that advocates for additional resources at the nation’s land ports, lamented a U.S. Senate financing measure it said fell short of immediate relief needed on the border after budget cuts took place March 1.

“The Senate version of HR 933, the continuing appropriations bill, provides short-term funding for no fewer than 21,775 CBP officers, far short of the new hires needed to facilitate legitimate trade and travel,” Monica Weisberg-Stewart, the chairwoman of the TBC’s immigration and border security committee, said in a news release.

“As far as we can tell, the bill provides no short-term relief that would minimize or eliminate the anticipated furloughs, such as by directing that current staffing levels be maintained on the front lines,” she added.

The appropriations measure includes a mechanism that allows the Department of Homeland Security to pilot similar funding partnerships as those suggested in Cornyn and the representatives’ bills, which Weisberg-Stewart lauded. But, she added, the cuts are sure to have a negative impact on trade and commerce.

“The current budget landscape, including implementation of the automatic sequestration spending cuts, has already thickened the legal border crossing points between the U.S. and Mexico,” she said, adding that according to DHS officials, wait times at land ports could exceed five or six hours.

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Politics Transportation Border