HIDALGO, RGV – Hidalgo Mayor Martin Cepeda is hoping new public-private partnerships designed to improve efficiencies at border bridges will help reduce the wait time for pedestrians and motorists crossing into the U.S.

Cepeda said it is not uncommon for tourists and business men and women to spend three or four hours on the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. He also disputed Border Bridge Wait Times given to local media by Customs and Border Protection.

“We have our neighbors from Mexico coming over here to buy, to spend their money. A lot of them come from Monterrey and the southern part of Mexico. It takes them four or five hours to get to the bridge and then they get there and they have to sit another three to four hours,” Cepeda told the Guardian.

A provision in a budget bill passed by Congress that was pushed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar allows private funds to be used to pay for infrastructure improvements at border ports of entry and to pay for the overtime of Customs and Border Protection officers.

“I am hoping that the new law allows us to open a lot more lanes through the hiring of more CPB inspectors,” Cepeda said. “And I am very excited they are putting the money at the bridges, so more men and women in blue (CBP) can be hired. I am not saying we do not need more men and women in green (Border Patrol) but I am excited Congress has concentrated on what we have been telling them all along – that we have got to open more lanes, that we have got to speed up the process as far as getting people across.”

U.S. House Rep. John Carter, chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, announced recently that CBP will receive $225.7 million in funds to hire 2,000 more men and women in blue as part of the Fiscal Year 2014 Appropriations Bill.

Asked if it is really true that pedestrians and motorists can sometimes wait three to four hours on the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, Cepeda answered affirmatively.

“Yes, it can be three or four hours, even walking. I have had people complain that they have been standing in line out there in the sun for three or four hours. So, it is a problem. It will take a little time but I think it will get better. We have been talking to Customs supervisors and they are very good at working with us.”

Asked what he thought about the Border Bridge Wait Times given out to local media by CBP, usually stating the wait is only 30 minutes at Hidalgo, Cepeda said: “It only takes half an hour if you wake up early. If you go out there now it will probably take an hour or an hour and a half. It all depends on the time of the day. Rush hour can be very bad.” Cepeda said he would like to see a more scientific method used to calculate how long visitors are kept waiting on international bridges. At the moment it is a guestimate obtained through line of sight by CBP officers.

Cepeda said he is “really hopeful” the new public-private partnership legislation will lead to more lanes opening at Hidalgo and more lanes built at the Anzalduas-Reynosa International Bridge.

Details about the public-private partnership legislation were unveiled by Valley leaders at a news conference at Anzalduas recently. Among those who spoke at the conference were U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, Mayor Cepeda, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Mission Mayor Beto Salinas, McAllen Bridge Superintendent Rigo Villarreal, Border Trade Alliance Chairman Jesse Hereford, and Border Trade Alliance board member and Starr-Camargo Bridge owner Sam Vale.

Vale pointed out that public-private partnerships are nothing new.

“When they pulling barges with mules, that was a public-private partnership. When they were building telegraphs that was a public-private partnership. When they were building the railroads that was a public-private partnership. It was not until we got into the 1950s and the success economically that we had at that time, after World War 2, that the country was able to build the interstate system primarily on their own. So, we think this is an old idea. It is not a new idea,” Vale said.

“What we are saying is that if you have an economic interest in getting a service, you can pay the federal government to get that service.”

The push to pass public-private partnership legislation started in McAllen and Mission when state Sen. Juan Hinojosa secured $7 million for infrastructure improvements at Anzalduas International Bridge but CBP said there was no way they could accept it. Ironically, the money originally came from the federal government. Mayor Salinas of Mission was furious that they money could not be used for its intended purpose. He engaged heatedly with Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Cuellar, urging them to pass legislation that would allow CBP to accept “private” funding.

Vale said the “magic moment” came with a visit to Anzalduas by Congressman Carter last August. “Congressman Carter heard that the City of McAllen and its partners had seven million dollars of transportation money that said you could spend this to improve the international bridges and the access to them in your community. Yet, they found out they could not spend the money because there was no mechanism to do it,” Vale said.

Vale said Carter was incredulous that the money was sitting in a bank unused and could even have been snatched back by the Legislature. “Congressman Carter said: ‘How is it possible that you have seven million federal dollars designed to be used for ports of entry and border access… but you can’t spend it’,” Vale said.

Vale said Section 559 of the new budget bill “clarified” what CBP could do in partnering with private entities and “expanded” upon an agreement that private funds could be used for CBP overtime to include infrastructure improvements. Vale said the final piece of the jigsaw was “good leadership” among Valley cities and counties.