Texas lawmakers are celebrating a new federal law they say will decrease wait times and increase productivity at the country's ports of entry. 

President Obama on Friday signed the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act, which allows private businesses and local governments to pay for beefed-up staffing and infrastructure improvements at the ports of entry on Texas' southern border by entering into agreements with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The law comes amid questions about whether the North American Free Trade Agreement will be reworked or even eliminated under the Trump administration. The trade pact has made El Paso and Laredo two of the busiest trade hubs in the country, but understaffing at the ports has also increased wait times for pedestrian, vehicular and commercial traffic.

The legislation was authored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and sponsored in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Their goal is to allow CBP to staff up during peak crossing periods to alleviate long waits and help offset delays caused by understaffed ports.

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“Every day, billions of dollars’ worth of goods cross the Texas-Mexico border, including $284 billion in trade at our nation’s largest customs district in my hometown of Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley,” Cuellar said in a statement. “South Texas is a powerhouse for world trade, and this law will help increase the amount and efficiency of trade at our border ports of entry.”

Obama’s signature on the legislation comes at a time of uncertainty for the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Cornyn and his colleagues in the House have expressed concerns over President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail that included eliminating or renegotiating NAFTA. Trump argued the change would benefit American workers by keeping jobs here instead of sending them overseas, but Cornyn and Cuellar said in interviews they hoped Trump’s talk during the campaign was just fodder to lure voters and that his mind would change when he realized NAFTA helps the economy more than it hurts workers.

The private-public cooperation is already in places at some ports and airports following legislation in 2013 that created a pilot program for such partnerships. They include international bridges in Laredo, Cameron County, Pharr, McAllen and Rio Grande City, as well as operators of international bridges in El Paso. The legislation signed last week would make the project permanent.

In a statement, Cornyn said the pilot program has proven that the legislation bodes well for the state’s economy.

“Pilot programs like these already underway in Texas have reduced wait times, increased efficiency and improved commerce at our ports of entry. I’m pleased President Obama signed this bill into law so more ports of entry can benefit,” he said.

Mexico is the state’s largest trading partner and the country’s third largest, behind Canada and China. Through October, more than $437.5 billion in two-way trade has passed between both countries, including $227.3 billion and $79.4 billion through the Laredo and El Paso customs districts, respectively.

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But one border trade expert says the measure is just a quick, stopgap fix that won't settle anything over the long term.

Instead of asking local governments or private businesses to pay for a federal responsibility, CBP should do more to hire agents, said Nelson Balido, the CEO and chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to promoting free trade and security.

“It’s a slippery slope. You don’t want the government to get used to the private sector [paying],” he said.

But it’s not just the private sector that has funded the project so far.

In El Paso, for example, the city has used revenue from local bridge tolls paid by pedestrians or drivers to sustain the project. Toll revenue has been used to pay for additional staffing that has resulted in a 15 percent reduction in wait times since 2014, according to the office of US. Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, a co-sponsor of the new law.

But Balido said people shouldn’t be convinced of the program's successes unless a third party does a comprehensive study on the results. He also said that using local bridge tolls amounts to a tax on ordinary citizens.

“If you raise the tolls, then you are funding what the government should be doing,” he said.

Cornyn has said for years that the partnerships wouldn’t be needed if the federal government did its job and adequately funded CBP staffing. He’s also said that absent a permanent solution, the public-private partnerships are there to fill in the gap.

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Read more Tribune stories on international trade: 

  • Despite all the time Donald Trump spent bashing NAFTA while running, border leaders hope he'll soften his stance as campaign trail rhetoric cools.  
  • Trade has become a hot-button issue this presidential election year, and some Texas lawmakers are worried about what that means for the future of the state's trade climate.
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