BROWNSVILLE, RGV – There was a time when border leaders complained constantly that Washington, D.C., and Mexico City were not listening to them or the needs of their region.
Such sentiments were not on show at last week’s official inauguration of the West Rail Bypass, the first international rail bridge to be built by the United States and Mexico for over 100 years. In fact, border leaders were full of praise for the two federal governments and they gave credit for a change in attitude to the High Level Economic Dialogue accord signed by Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto in 2013.
“There is a change in thinking at the federal level about the border region and I put it down to when the two presidents at the federal level, Peña Nieto and Obama, met in Mexico City and Washington, D.C., back in 2013,” said U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, Texas.
“We congressmen got to witness those historic meetings and what we are seeing now is a difference imposed from the top down. The accord struck then is having an impact on the cabinets in Washington and Mexico City. We are now getting programs and projects that benefit the border region.”
In May 2013, President Obama and President Peña Nieto announced the formation of the High Level Economic Dialogue to “advance strategic economic and commercial priorities central to promoting mutual economic growth, job creation, and global competitiveness.”
Like Hinojosa, Rodolfo Quilantán Arenas, Mexico’s consul in Brownsville, was at the official inauguration of the West Rail Bypass. Like Hinojosa, Quilantán has noticed a change in attitude towards the border region by the two federal governments.
“The official opening of the West Rail Bypass shows the border region is being taken to whole other level in the bilateral relationship,” Quilantán said. “I never thought I would see four Cabinet secretaries come to the same place on the border. But that is what we have here today. The important thing is the two presidents have set the rules for all the federal departments to work together in a better way, to be more honest, more professional.”
The four Cabinet secretaries Quilantán was referring to as being at the West Rail Bypass were U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny A. Pritzker, Mexican Secretary of Finance and Public Credit Luis Videgaray Caso, Mexican Secretary of Communications and Transport Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, and Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade Kuribreña. All four spoke at the West Rail Bypass event.
“It is always good to have a high level dialogue between two governments but it is much better to actually get results done,” said Videgaray. “Thank you, Penny (Pritzker). You have been a true force for delivering results.” Videgaray added that he expects Pritzker and himself to be unveiling new U.S.-Mexico projects in Guadalupe-Tornillo and Tijuana-San Diego in the coming months. The Guadalupe-Tornillo project is a new international land port of entry. The Tijuana-San Diego project is a new private pedestrian crossing linking Tijuana airport to the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, Texas, could not attend the West Rail Bypass event because he had been called to Washington for a classified briefing on matters related to the Middle East. However, Vela did appear on MSNBC-TV earlier in the day to discuss the new international rail line.
“Two weeks ago local officials from both the United States and Mexico and I stood and watched trains cross this bridge for the first time. It’s the first international rail bridge in over a hundred years on the U.S.-Mexican border. And in the context over all the debate on immigration what it makes you think about is that we really need to redirect our focus on this issue. If you consider the fact that Mexico imports $300 billion in goods every year, it makes you realize that what we should be focusing on is enhancing economic development in Mexico in addition to addressing security concerns,” Vela told MSNBC’s Daily Rundown host José Díaz-Balart.
Vela also made this remark about the international rail project: “The West Rail Relocation project represents an enormous collaborative effort by federal, state and local officials in the United States and Mexico which began about 15 years ago. Every individual involved in the project, from those officials to the workers who have made this possible deserve a tremendous amount of credit for making this crossing a reality.”
Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez said an aspect of the West Rail Bypass that has been overlooked by many is the agreement by the U.S. and Mexico to share data on the cargo being carried by freight trains on the new rail line.
“I think it is beyond comparison. I think people do not fully appreciate the context of what this means because it has not been done anywhere else in the world. We did it first in Brownsville and they hope to export that model throughout the southwest border region, all the way to San Diego and then hopefully carry it on to foreign countries. There are x-ray machines and images that you see at all of these towers. What people do not realize is that Mexico was relying on our security and our x-ray while they moved their machine. Now they have moved their machine we will be counting on theirs until we get ours and then we will double-share, so really it is a two-tier way of double-checking. We have never seen it before,” Martinez said.
Reflecting on the fact it took 15 years to get the new rail line and bridge built, Martinez said: “There is just a time in history when you say, it can get done. I think it was Nelson Mandela who said, it’s impossible until it gets done. It is no longer impossible. When you reflect on this, the support at every level, whether it is federal, state, local, city, whatever it is, has been extraordinary. Was it frustrating? Sure it was. Sometimes it takes longer than we really want it to. But, you know what, sometimes you have to have perseverance.”
In her remarks, Secretary Pritzker said the U.S. and Mexican markets are now “inextricably linked” and that the South Texas-North Tamaulipas region is “the staging point for the vast majority of our bilateral commercial activity.” Pritzker pointed out that nearly $1.5 billion of goods cross between the United States and Mexico each and every day and that approximately 80 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade crosses via road and rail. She also pointed out that U.S. imports from Mexico contain 40 percent U.S. content.
“Put simply, our shared border is already an essential artery of prosperity for both our countries. But we need to do everything we can to make sure that it is up to the task of the 21st Century, given the volume of trade that we do between ourselves today.”
One reason for the exponential growth in bilateral commerce, Pritzker said, is the North American Free Trade Agreement. “Since the implementation of NAFTA total trade between our countries has expanded six-fold. This rapid expansion has created jobs and opportunity on both sides of the border and made our region far more competitive in the global economy.” However, she said the associated increase in commercial activity “has put an overwhelming strain on our transportation infrastructure and our land ports of entry.” Pritzker said commercial crossing points were not modernized following the completion of NAFTA. She said this means the U.S. and Mexico are using infrastructure that was built for roughly a quarter of the current trade volume. “The congestion at our borders will only become more acute once we finalize and implement the Trans Pacific Partnership,” Pritzker said.
The conclusion, the commerce secretary said, is obvious. “In an increasingly globalized economy our collective competitiveness depends on our ability to replace outdated infrastructure and continue to develop a modern, efficient and secure border. This is why we are prioritizing the development and execution of border infrastructure projects under the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue.”
Pritzker said the U.S. and Mexico cannot wait another 100 years before they inaugurate the next new bridge or road that connects the two countries. Pritzker said she sat in Secretary Videgaray’s office in February, 2014, and heard Videgaray describe the West Rail Bypass as “low hanging fruit.” Pritzker said she, Videgaray and others have focused on driving the West Rail project to completion. But, she said, the U.S. and Mexico needs a process that is not “driven solely by the individual personalities here today.”
Rather, Pritzker said, the U.S. and Mexico needs a strategy that is coordinated, sustainable, and effective.
“We cannot take a decade to finish a critical piece of infrastructure. In the 21st Century our businesses need more efficiency from our governments. We are working to develop this improved approach in the High Level Economic Dialogue, consistent with the goals that are articulated by our presidents, President Obama and President Peña Nieto when they launched our bilateral cooperation in 2013. They want us to realize the vision of North America as the most competitive region in the world, and to make it easier for our companies, yes, our companies, companies on both sides of the border, to do more business together.”
Quilantán, Mexico’s consul in Brownsville, added that great things are happening between South Texas and North Tamaulipas at the moment. “The important thing for me is that everything is changing here in the Valley. Last week we had the expansion of BiNED. Before that we had the sister city agreement between Brownsville and Matamoros. Today it was the sister city agreement between San Benito and Matamoros. The economic drive in the area is growing. We are moving together. We are watching history in the making.”
BiNED stands for the Bi-National Economic Development Mega Zone, an agreement to focus on advanced manufacturing that was signed earlier this month by the cities of Matamoros, Brownsville, Harlingen, Reynosa, McAllen and Edinburg, and the counties of Cameron and Hidalgo.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows Congressman Filemon Vela being interviewed by MSNBC’s Daily Rundown host José Díaz-Balart.