LAREDO — The water misters set up to cool pedestrians in line at one of the bridges connecting Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and this South Texas city did little to quell the sweltering heat on a recent summer day.
Mexicans and Americans alike stood patiently waiting for permission to enter the U.S. and watching as one vehicle, then slowly another, was inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials as hundreds of other cars waited, engines humming and exhaust fumes stretching toward the sky.
Commercial, vehicle and pedestrian waiting times for crossing from Mexico into Texas are consistently hours long, a byproduct of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the post-9/11 security build-up at the country’s ports.
Local governments, however, are sorting out details of a recently approved pilot program that will create public-private partnerships with Customs and Border Protection to increase staff at the nation’s ports and help alleviate backups. Four of the five cites chosen for the program are in Texas: the South Texas Assets Consortium, which includes international bridges in Laredo, Cameron County, Pharr, McAllen and Rio Grande City; international bridges in El Paso; George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston; and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
The program was included in the federal appropriations bill signed in March and was initially proposed as part of HR 1108, the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, a bipartisan effort filed by U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin; Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn filed a companion bill.
Details on the arrangements are unclear, but proponents say the partnerships will aid Texas’ booming trade with Mexico. In fiscal year 2012, more than $229 billion and $86 billion in trade passed through the Laredo and El Paso customs districts, respectively, according to WorldCity, which tracks global trade patterns. Through June of this year, trade with Mexico in Laredo and El Paso totaled $118 billion and $43.5 billion, respectively, and total U.S. trade with Mexico was $249.1 billion.
Local governments have the freedom to craft their own port staffing proposals, which must get final approval from Customs and Border Protection, said Sam Vale, the president of South Texas Assets Consortium.
“Each individual will have an opportunity to do what’s best for their community. Keep in mind that right now, everybody is operating blindly,” he said. “A decision will have to be made on a case-by-case basis. That’s the way you enter this game — you start with something, and that’s the only thing that’s clear.”
A city of El Paso proposal includes extending full staffing for pedestrian and passenger vehicle lanes by two hours during the morning and three hours on afternoon shifts, according to information the city sent to Tom Winkowski, the current acting commissioner of CBP. The number of open lanes will depend on seasonal traffic, the city says.
Vale compared the program to increasing security or support staff during a seasonal event where international traffic fluctuates. During a binational winter celebration that Nuevo Laredo and Laredo hold together, he said, the city of Laredo could submit a proposal for more staff to help handle the influx of crossers.
Laredo could make a determination with its chamber of commerce and use sales tax revenue to purchase three additional lanes based on an overtime rate, Vale said. “So they would send a request to CBP asking for that,” he said. “If they agree, they would sign a work order number then they will deliver the services.”
The same can also be negotiated for bus lines or commercial vehicles that wish to cross during off-peak hours.
Cuellar said the initial phase of the pilot program would only finance overtime. He added that such an arrangement is already in place in several airports across the country, which should soothe concerns about possible missteps.
Under the User Fee Airport Program, an airport can receive CBP services for the processing of aircraft entering the United States. Other airports in Dallas, McKinney, Fort Worth, Sugar Land, San Antonio, Midland, Addison and Harlingen are currently enrolled, and those airports reimburse CBP for all costs associated with the services.
The pilot program “is only service, not for infrastructure,” Cuellar said. “It’s been done in the past. The private sector can stand their ground.”
Cuellar said four of the five sites chosen for the pilot program are in Texas because the entities “know what they’re doing.” But other stakeholders say the government is playing favorites and hindering other states.
“We don't need the government picking winners and losers," Lance Jungmeyer, the president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said in a press release. "What we need is recognition that security at our southwestern ports of entry also entails economic security.”
Vale said that, as with all competitive projects, some would feel as if they lost out. But he added that the program should be viewed as beneficial to all consumers and travelers.
“Is that picking a winner or loser or is that good public policy, to maximize the locations where you can export your products?” he said. “If the government puts the highway somewhere, are they picking a winner or loser, or are they doing what’s in the best interest of the public at large?”
Cuellar acknowledged that private-sector groups have raised concerns about the program and whether CBP will come through in providing staff and services exactly as they are requested. But he said those fears are overblown.
“I can understand, you fear the federal government, you’re going to always fear the federal government,” he said. “But the thing is the oversight here is that it is service overtime only. If air cargo can do it, and they are big boys that handle themselves, then certainly land ports can handle themselves.”
Cuellar said members of the House of Representatives have already passed a measure approving 1,600 more CBP agents, which he said could make the pilot program only a stopgap measure. He also fought back against accusations that the federal government is skirting its responsibility and leaving staffing to local entities.
‘This isn’t mandatory,” he said. “Bottom line is if the feds had all the money in the world, they would be able to do this, but they don’t. If a local entity or a pilot entity wants to put a little extra so they can move things faster because time is of the essence, then I think they should be allowed to.”