PHARR, RGV – Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller says he expects the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations to wrap up within the next couple of weeks.
Miller spoke to reporters after touring the Pharr International Bridge. He took questions about NAFTA and border infrastructure projects immediately following a private meeting with the local bridge board.
The bridge board is looking for more funding to pay the overtime of agriculture inspectors. The more inspections that are made, the less time trucks filled with fresh produce are waiting on the bridge.
“NAFTA is huge, not only for the United States. It is really huge for Texas. It is almost a billion dollars a day of trade that is coming through the State of Texas and a big portion of that is right here in Pharr, Texas, at this bridge. I think it is 2,400 trucks per day, coming and going, back and forth across this bridge,” Miller said.
Miller said the renegotiation of the free trade agreement, signed more than two decades ago by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, is drawing to a close.
“NAFTA, we are getting close. We have a real strong possibility of wrapping up NAFTA in the next two weeks,” Miller told reporters.
“NAFTA is a 20-something year-old document. It is like a house that was built 20-something years ago. It is time to do a refurbishing. We want to make it better. We have a good foundation with NAFTA and we are going to build on it, give it a new coat of paint.”
Miller said the important thing with NAFTA is “do no harm.” Especially for the agriculture industry.
“I have spent a lot of time with the Governor of Tamaulipas, Cabeza de Vaca. We have had several meetings over this. I have spent a week in Denver at the tri-national agriculture accord, working with our friends in Mexico and Canada, trying to work out our differences and it looks like we are going to have the chance to make what everyone would consider a very good document a great document.”
Miller said the time was right to tweak NAFTA.
“Times have changed. Markets have changed, governments have changed, consumer appetites have changed. Technology is the biggest change we are facing right now. We will try to upgrade that document so that we do not make winners and losers but winners and winners,” Miller said.
Discussing his private meeting at the Pharr International Bridge, Miller said:
“I have been visiting with city officials and local administrators to see how we can make things better here. This is a very important port of entry for Texas and for agriculture. It is a growing market for imports of Mexican produce, vegetables, fruits, nuts and things like that. It will continue to grow so we have to make sure we have the proper infrastructure in place to meet the needs.”
Asked by the Rio Grande Guardian if the Pharr International Bridge needs more agriculture inspectors, in order to speed up trucks filled with imported fresh produce from Mexico, Miller said:
“We currently have a program where have partnered with the cities here to provide some overtime money. That is going to run out so I am working with the new secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue. I have joined with USDA to see if we can’t get those numbers up. I do not see this as a big hurdle to get across.”
Miller said the good thing for border cities like Pharr that have international bridges and have utilized the public-private partnership program now have the numbers to back up their claims that it works.
“When we first made that request we were kind of speculating what was going to happen. Obviously, we were right, the City of Pharr was right. We need to increase the number of inspection hours and we do that… it is more efficient if you do that with 40-hour week employees and pay them overtime. We are all about making things more efficient. I think that is a strong possibility.”
Miller has visited the Pharr International Bridge before. Asked what had changed since his tour a few years ago, Miller said:
“I did not recognize this place when I showed up. We have had an extreme amount of growth, which is good. I commend your community for that. You have got a lot of activity here. The bridge itself is up about 30 percent in its utilization and that is mostly inbound trucks. That is due to the new infrastructure projects in Mexico. A lot of the produce that was going to Nogales, Arizona, is now coming through this bridge. It is because of what the city has invested in infrastructure and installing a lot of cold storage facilities. This has kind of become the distribution hub for that incoming produce.”
Asked to explain what new infrastructure Mexico has invested in, Miller referenced the new coast-to-coast superhighway from Mazatlan to Durango and onto Matamoros.
“They have just completed a major, superhighway across the Rocky Mountain Range and that has allowed them… before they would have had to go up the mountain range into Arizona. That cuts off at least a couple of days, maybe more, depending where you are coming from. The produce that comes through Texas mostly ends up east of the Mississippi. It was going though Nogales and now comes through Pharr, Texas.”
Miller said from what he has read and heard, increased truck traffic coming through Pharr is expected to continue.
“The projection is that it is going to increase. I do not think we have plateaued yet. We still need to work and make sure we have the infrastructure. There are projects on the books here that have not been completed. We need to make sure they are completed. The Mexicans also have some projects they are working on to get completed. We are trying to keep up this big surge and we are doing a pretty good job, I would have to say. I have to commend your City here for being forward-thinkers and having a lot of foresight to get ready for this big influx of commerce.”
One aspect of the new infrastructure at the bridge that Miller is going to personally work on is a truck inspection station.
“The truck inspection station has been built now for five years but it is not up and running. That is not the City’s fault. That is state government not doing its job. It is something I am going to work on when I get back. We do have some more TXDOT projects, like the loop around the county that will alleviate congestion. It will take a lot of wear and tear off local roads. They are in pretty bad shape, from what I understand. We need to get some money in to fix those, the current roads that are in disrepair and have been neglected. And that is from a state standpoint.”
Asked how quickly the nearby road projects might take, Miller said: “The sooner the better but everything works at the speed of government. I hate to use that term but a lot of this is dependent on the legislature, on when they meet and how much we can get appropriated through the appropriation process.”
That said, the State of Texas has rightly invested a lot in the Valley, Miller argued.
“The Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Agriculture, we have put in millions and millions of dollars into the Valley through community development block grants, for infrastructure projects, to extend water lines, sewer lines, to help build roads. All of that means new commerce. You have seen that here. I don’t think anyone will argue with you. This place is booming and that is great for your local economy.”
Asked by a reporter about the next federal farm bill, Miller stressed the importance of bringing high speed Internet to rural communities.
“There are things in the Farm Bill that will help this community. Broadband is one we really need in rural Texas. This community used to qualify but may not now because your population has grown. But, we sorely need broadband brought into rural areas of the state so that we can stay competitive.”
Other aspects of the farm bill worth noting, Miller said, include preservation of the crop insurance program.
“We no longer give subsidies or make disaster payments. We have gone strictly to a crop insurance program. This has been working really, really, well. It is a huge advantage for the taxpayer. We have got some funding in there for Hurricane Harvey relief.”