|WESLACO, March 27 - Those of us in the Rio Grande Valley donít need to be reminded of the importance of cross-border trade and travel to our regionís economy.
After all, Texas in 2012 led all states in surface trade value with Mexico at nearly $146 billion. Much of that trade, from agriculture products to electronics to heavy equipment entered the U.S. through ports right here in the Valley, creating jobs and enhancing our areaís competitiveness along the way.
But what is front and center here at home might not be getting the attention it deserves at the highest levels of government. Thatís why we joined a delegation from the Border Trade Alliance last week in Washington, D.C., to discuss with lawmakers the importance of trade to the Valley.
Infrastructure figured prominently in our discussions. With U.S. ports of entry at an average age of 40 years old, it is estimated that it would take $6 billion to modernize them up to todayís standards. In an age of budget cutting, thatís money that just isnít available from Washington.
Thatís why we urged action on the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013, legislation introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and in the House by a bipartisan group of legislators, including Valley Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Filemon Vela.
This important legislation would establish a framework for public-private partnerships, whereby private sector dollars could be leveraged with federal dollars to develop new border infrastructure or even augment staffing resources, such as for Customs and Border Protection overtime.
With federal budgets shrinking under the government-wide cuts known as sequestration, and the growing likelihood that wait times at our border will only increase, this is a bill that needs to be fast-tracked. In addition to Reps. Cuellar and Vela, fellow Texas Reps. Mike McCaul, Beto OíRourke, Pete Gallego and Blake Farenthold have all signed on to the House version of the bill, an encouraging sign that Republicans and Democrats recognize the urgency in getting this bill passed.
On our last day in Washington, Congress passed a spending bill to avert a government shutdown. Contained in that bill is language that would allow for CBP to partner with the private sector to offset CBP service costs at the ports. While the language does not address infrastructure, this is a good first step in forging a new way of doing business on the border.
Also as part of our infrastructure advocacy, we urged members of Congress to ensure that the Coordinated Border Infrastructure program remains a dedicated funding stream in the next federal highway bill to help border communities with their infrastructure needs. CBI dollars dispersed to TxDOT and other state departments of transportation are critical to helping border communities keep pace with the challenges placed on them by ever-growing trade volumes.
Finally, we used the occasion to urge our representatives and senators to work with us as we seek ways to speed agricultural trade through the ports of entry. Because of the productsí perishability, efficiency at the ports is at a premium. But due to bureaucratic complications between CBP and USDA, too often produce isnít getting through the ports and onto store shelves in a timely manner. BTA is working with local port officials and agency decision-makers to ensure that port personnel have ability to process fruits and vegetables quickly and safely into U.S. commerce.
The positive conversations we have had with our elected officials in Washington provided us with encouragement that progress is being made in the area of border infrastructure and staffing needs at our ports. We will continue to be in close contact with members of both parties in Congress as we work to develop a border that is an economic asset to our region.
Sam Vale and Julian Alvarez are board members of the Border Trade Alliance. Vale is president and CEO of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Co. in Rio Grande City. Alvarez is president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. Others that serve on the BTA board are Teclo Garcia, with the City of McAllen, Pete Sepulveda, Cameron County Administrator, and Rigo Villarreal, superintendent of the Anzalduas and Hidalgo international bridges, and Danny Rios and Jesse Hereford of S&B Infrastructure. Hereford is chair of the BTA.