PHARR, RGV – Pharr leaders say an $80 million project to renovate the Reynosa side of the Pharr International Bridge is the “missing piece” in making their bridge the most efficient full-service commercial bridge in Texas.

The Pharr bridge is the sixth largest land port of entry in the United States and the fourth largest on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pharr Bridge Director Luis A. Bazan and Pharr Bridge Director of Operations Fred Brouwen recently gave an update on the infrastructure projects currently underway at their bridge to six site selectors from Germany. The site selectors spent three days visiting the Rio Grande Valley on a tour organized by Rio South Texas Economic Council.

“We need to have this project on the Reynosa side. The projects on our side of the bridge are coming. This is the missing piece. It is an $80 million project. They are trying to go man-less and paperless,” said Bazan, pointing to a slide showing construction well underway on the Reynosa side of the international bridge.

“They are expanding to ten lanes with dedicated lanes for trucks. We are shooting drone footage every couple of weeks. They are really moving fast. It is a very ambitious program. It is scheduled to be complete by October 2018. A private land owner has donated the land for the project. There are 400 workers working on it, with the Mexican military in charge. It is a completely modernized infrastructure project, for import and export. We cannot wait for this project to go live.”

Bazan also pointed out that Mexico already has a loop that bypasses the city of Reynosa completely.

“It opened a few months ago. It connects with the Supervía Mazatlán-Matamoros highway that is so important for bringing fresh produce from Sinaloa to the Pharr Bridge,” Bazan said.

Through a slideshow, Bazan showed how the Pharr Bridge is handling more and move volume, so much so that it is now the No. 1 land port for the importation of fresh produce from Mexico. “We are crossing about 64 percent of all the fresh produce coming from Mexico. We are No. 1 for avocados and berries, No. 2 for tomatoes. We are big on produce as you can see,” he said.

Matt Ruszczak, executive director of Rio South Texas Economic Council, referenced remarks made by import-export entrepreneur Joaquin Spamer of Mission to the European site selectors the day before. At a dinner at Arturo’s in Weslaco, Spamer had talked about the Texas-Mexico border being North America’s Third Coast. “Mr. Spamer was explaining how you can now ship through Mexico to Asia, that it takes less time than going through Long Beach, Calif.,” Ruszczak told the site selectors.

“I am really excited about being here, for a couple of reasons,” Ruszczak told the site selectors, as the Pharr International Bridge presentation got underway. “No. 1, the Pharr International Bridge is one of those key pieces to the puzzle for this region, just like the Port of Brownsville, just like Workforce Solutions, a very important component. No. 2, I really appreciate Luis. I think he does a helluva job running this show. He has great vision, a great outlook into the future and has assembled a wonderful team of people that works very hard to produce a positive impact for this region.”

In addition to discussing the Mexican side of the Pharr International Bridge, Bazan gave an in-depth overview of the infrastructure improvements being made on the U.S. side.

He explained how the City of Pharr had signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. General Services Administration in 2015 that allows Pharr to pay for infrastructure improvements. It is called the Donations Acceptance Program, or 559 Program.

“It allows us as a municipality to invest in future infrastructure that is greatly needed that would otherwise take maybe 20 years for the federal government to put in place. We can do it in five years. By April 2020 we will have invested about $30 million in infrastructure,” Bazan told the site selectors.

A slide in Bazan’s power point presentation listed the projects approved by the federal government to improve the Pharr port of entry. They included a BSIF gate-to-gate connector, two additional entry lanes and booths, two additional exit lanes and booths, dock expansion, additional cold storage inspection facilities, and an agricultural training center and laboratory.

The benefits and advantages of the projects, Bazan said, include increased capacity, a maximizing of space and the elimination of unnecessary procedures for truck drivers, a reduction in border wait times, the creation of local and international jobs, a streamlining of the inspection process, an improvement in commercial truck throughput and trade, and the support of local and regional trade industries and tourism.

Bazan said new “super-fast” gamma X-ray facilities will mean that of 170 trucks being inspected per day it will be 170 per hour.

Asked what trucking companies that use the Pharr bridge are saying about the improvements, Bazan said: “You can imagine how happy they are. We have a video with flying trucks.” He later played the video to the site selectors.

Bazan said another project Pharr International Bridge is patiently waiting on the federal government to implement is unified cargo processing for trucks coming in from Mexico. Under this arrangement, trucks would be inspected by U.S. and Mexican customs inspectors together, on the U.S. side, thereby eliminating inspections on the Reynosa side of the bridge. “We have been pushing for this for two years. It is working at the Otay Mesa (California) and Nogales (Arizona) ports of entry,” Bazan said. “Mexico has trucking companies ready to participate in a pilot project.”

Bazan also ran through some key statistics about the Pharr International Bridge. He told the site selectors that Pharr makes its money from southbound crossings, with the bridge generating $14 million to $15 million annually.

“We try to bring as much business to this bridge. We are working with some of the major cities in Mexico that export to the United States. We opened in 1994 and in 2017 we had 2,400 northbound trucks and 2,100 trucks southbound. Our November 2016 figures showed a12 percent increase in truck volumes, with a nine percent increase this month.”

Although the Pharr International Bridge has become increasingly known for being the top port of entry for fresh produce into the United States, it is also ranked No. 5 in the nation for manufactured goods. “We are doing $30 billion in trade with Mexico and the rest of the world,” Bazan said proudly. “Taking a look at our exports, in 2016-17 everything increased. On the import side, there was only one area that fell, motor vehicle parts, and that was by a very small percentage, minus 2.5 percent.”

Bazan added: “Our job is to promote this bridge as a commercial bridge. In 2017, we did, southbound, 580,000 trucks in the calendar year. But, we are always going to have more imports than exports. In 2017, we had 621,000 northbound trucks, compared to 482,000 in 2012. We are steadily growing our truck volumes.”

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a six-part series about the visit of European site selectors to the Rio Grande Valley. Click here to read part one, here to read part two and here to read part three. Part Five, focusing on economic development in Starr County, will be posted later this week.