Nine months into a federal pilot program created to reduce wait times at international ports of entry, operators of bridges on the Texas-Mexico border say it appears to be accomplishing that goal. But they also say it’s difficult to measure whether cars, trucks and pedestrians are moving faster across the border.

Launched in late January, the project allows local governments and private companies to help pay for increased U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffing at international ports, bridges and airports during peak times. Texas sites chosen for the public-private partnerships include international bridges in El Paso and South Texas and international airports in Houston and Dallas.

“In many cases, it has been very successful, particularly in the passenger lanes,” said Sam Vale, president of the South Texas Assets Consortium, which runs bridges in Laredo, Cameron County, Pharr, McAllen and Rio Grande City.

For example, the program helped two of the consortium’s bridges open additional lanes during this year’s Easter travel rush, reducing wait times from four hours to 40 minutes, Vale said. It also helped add a commercial inspection lane at the Rio Grande City bridge, which increased the numbers of vehicles inspected per hour to nine from just over four, he said.

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Supporters of the program, which passed in 2013 with a bipartisan vote, said it would speed up international trade and travel even as the federal government failed to keep enough agents on duty. It also allows local governments and private companies to pay for improvements to international ports. Meanwhile, the federal government is in the process of hiring up to 2,000 additional Customs and Border Patrol officers. 

More than $100 million in economic output is lost per minute during bridge delays at the nation’s five busiest southern ports, which include El Paso, Hidalgo County and Laredo, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Commerce study.

Mexico is Texas’ largest trade partner and the United States’ third largest, behind Canada and China. More than 1.8 million northbound trucks passed through Laredo in 2013, and about 739,000 passed through El Paso, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation.

As of late July, the program had led to U.S. Customs and Border Protection opening lanes and booths for an additional 24,000 hours at ports in El Paso, South Texas, Dallas, Houston and Miami, according to the agency

The program, which began in Texas and Florida, is slated to expand soon in those states as well as to California, Nevada, Colorado, Delaware and Pennsylvania. It offers local governments some flexibility to negotiate the terms of the partnerships.

The city of El Paso, which operates three international bridges, uses a portion of bridge toll revenue to provide additional agents. As a result, pedestrians walking to or from Ciudad Juárez are moving more quickly, said Paul Stresow, director of El Paso’s bridge system. That has an economic impact because many people walk over the bridge to shop in downtown El Paso, he said.

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Wait times in El Paso have decreased about 1.2 minutes per vehicle and more than four minutes per pedestrian, said U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, citing information he received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The program "has been a big part of it, but I also think there's been a lot of increased awareness and attention and pressure on CBP to be more effective," O'Rourke said. 

There is limited data available on the program's impact on bridge wait times, so observations are largely anecdotal, Vale said. 

“There is a big hesitation to provide a lot of numbers because nobody wants to be held accountable,” Vale said of bridge operators and federal officials.

Border wait times are difficult to measure, said Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership, a nonprofit organization that analyzes North American trade information.

“The methodology is not yet an exact science,” Lee said. “Mexico has its own history, its own set of customs and its unique circumstances.”

Many factors can affect wait times, Stresow said, like change in traffic flows due to security concerns in Mexico or staffing during early-morning hours.

“The anomaly is that at 2 a.m., there are only two lanes open and the lines are longer,” he said. “It skews the overall results.”

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Stresow said El Paso is considering asking manufacturers in Ciudad Juárez to help pay for the bridge staffing.

Lee said there is growing interest in the project and lauded its creation, but also cautioned against expecting the private sector to play an integral role too quickly.

“The thinking is that these are industries that provide jobs in an already economically distressed region,” he said. “To burden them with additional fees is kind of unfair.”

He added that dealing with wait times at bridges – though not ideal – is better than the alternative: waiting weeks for a shipment from China. 

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