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Dispute Over Money for Scanning Machine May Stall Bridge Opening

Just weeks before a new rail bridge connecting Texas and Mexico is set to open, controversy surrounding an X-ray machine for the bridge has unfolded and could delay the opening.

The uncompleted new international railroad bridge near Brownsville passes over the border fence and US 281 before crossing the Rio Grande.

BROWNSVILLE — Lauded last year as a model of cooperation and a means to boost Texas’ robust trade relationship with Mexico, a rail project here in the Rio Grande Valley has hit a snag over the relocation of an X-ray machine.

And if Cameron County and U.S. Customs and Border Protection remain at an impasse, the opening of the Brownsville West Rail Bypass International Bridge — the first new rail bridge to connect the countries in more than a century — could face a monthslong delay, preventing an expansion at a crucial land port.

The Vehicle and Cargo Imaging System, which scans rail cars for narcotics, illicit cash and other contraband, needs to be moved to the new site from Brownsville, about seven miles away. Exchanges between local and federal officials indicate that neither side is willing to finance that project, which county officials said would cost about $1.5 million. It has added a twist in the debate over who is responsible for border security, and county officials worry the issue will delay the rail line’s opening. The project has already suffered a yearlong delay because of the relocation of gas transmission lines.

The new eight-mile rail line will connect a rural part of Cameron County and Tamaulipas state in Mexico. More than 10 years of planning and about $100 million have been spent on the project. Mexico has spent about $60 million and the county about $6 million, with the remainder picked up by the state and federal governments.

Pete Sepulveda, the Cameron County administrator, said Customs and Border Protection should pay for the relocation because its mission is to protect the homeland. “That equipment is strictly used by CBP,” he said. “The county will never use that piece of equipment.”

The Port of Brownsville is part of the Laredo Customs District, which trades more with Mexico than any other port in the country. Through July this year, more than $138.6 billion in trade passed through the trade zone, according to WorldCity, which uses census information to track trade data.

Federal officials say the State Department’s presidential permit for the rail bridge makes it clear that the onus to move the machine is on the county.

“I understand your office is well aware of both the language within the presidential permit and CBP’s position on the relocation” of the system, Thomas S. Winkowski, the acting federal customs commissioner, wrote to Sepulveda in July. “That said, CBP has an expectation that Cameron County will pay for or find an alternative way” to relocate it.

Like Sepulveda, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said the responsibility should not lie with the county. The concern is not just about narcotics or cash, he added, but about chemical and nuclear weapons.

“Although it may have been technically permissible for the State Department to delegate that duty to the county, what we’re talking about here really does involve national security interests,” he said. “And it just seems to me a little awkward that the State Department would delegate that duty to the county.”

Vela is also concerned about whether the machine should be replaced. It has been in use for more than 10 years, its expected life, according to testimony from Dr. Tara O’Toole, a Department of Homeland Security undersecretary. Winkowski told Vela that a new machine would cost about $3.5 million and that CBP would not have those resources through 2018.

Winkowski wrote Vela and indicated that the machine was 11 years old, had recently undergone a radiation-source replacement and was 99 percent operational. Vela and Sepulveda dispute that assessment. 

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