After more than a year of wrangling between local leaders and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over who should pay to move an X-ray machine, the first new rail bridge in more than a century connecting Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley is expected to open in February.
The new bridge, and an 8-mile rail line on the U.S. side, will replace the existing rail connection between Brownsville and Tamaulipas. Shifting rail traffic out of the congested cities will help speed the increasing flow of goods moving between the two countries, officials said.
U.S. and Mexican officials are hammering out a deal to share intelligence on freight traffic crossing the bridge until both sides have their inspection equipment permanently installed.
The agreement, subject to approval by both countries, comes after a dispute over funding and security stalled the bridge's completion. Cameron County is part of the Laredo Customs District, the busiest inland port in the country, and the delays have hindered trade, according to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville.
"When operational, the new port will have a major positive economic impact on the region and on the country,” Vela wrote last month to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. “Every time the project seems on the verge of completion, we learn of more issues to be addressed.”
The bridge's opening first slated in 2012 was pushed back because gas transmission lines had to be moved. Then came an impasse between Cameron County officials and the Department of Homeland Security over which agency would pay to move an X-ray machine from the old rail line to the new one.
The machines, known as Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems, scan rail cars for illicit cash, drugs and other contraband. Each country operates one on the existing rail route.
The plan calls for Mexican officials to move their machine to the new route first, with the countries sharing images from the American machine on the existing route in the meantime.
When the new line opens, the sides will share data from the Mexican machine until the U.S. one is moved.
Cameron County officials agreed earlier this year to pay the U.S. moving costs, about $800,000, from the county’s regional mobility authority fund. That resolved a 2013 stalemate when federal officials said the cost was Cameron County's responsibility.
“We saw the project was not going to move forward unless we provided the funding to relocate it, so we went ahead and did that,” said Cameron County Administrator Pete Sepulveda. “I think we’re at the very tail end” of the project.
The entire project's final price tag will exceed $100 million, with about $60 million coming from Mexico.
The Laredo customs district saw more than $208 billion in two-way trade in the first nine months of this year, an increase of about 11 percent from 2013, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based company that analyzes trade patterns. That includes more than $200.3 billion in two-way trade through Mexico.
The top imports and exports through the district include motor vehicle parts, commercial vehicles, fuels and landline and cellular phone equipment.