MCALLEN, RGV – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling says if re-elected to office he plans to spearhead efforts to amalgamate the various international bridge systems in Hidalgo County.

Darling spoke about the need for a unified approach on issues such as port of entry infrastructure and international traffic flows at a meeting of federal, state and local officials from the U.S. and Mexico. The meeting was held at McAllen City Hall and was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of State.

In his opening remarks, Darling said NAFTA has been a game changer for the region. “The industrialization of northern Mexico has been tremendous. I don’t think we have kept pace with that in relation to moving goods across the border.” Darling then spoke about the need for a unified bridge system.

“One unique thing about us compared to Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso is all of those areas have one bridge system. In Hidalgo County we are different. We have four or five bridge systems. We are probably behind the eight-ball from that standpoint. We have not had a coordinated effort to make sure that border crossings are the focal point of everybody as it relates to us a region. So we go up there (to Washington, D.C.) and fight for the limited resources between the various bridge owners,” Darling said.

“Hopefully, what I would like to do in the next five years, if I get re-elected, is to change that and put us on the same scope as the other areas of the region, not so much because it enriches McAllen but because it is good for our region. It makes sense not only for the cities and the owners of the bridges but it makes sense for Customs and Border Protection, it makes sense for GSA (General Services Administration), and also our counterparts in Mexico. So, hopefully, this is one of the many steps we are going to take to make sure that we address the issues on our side of the river and also on the Mexican side of the river.”

Pictured from left to right: Mexico’s Consul in McAllen, Guillermo Ordorica Robles, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Avdiel Y. Huerta, assistant secretary of state for Mexican and Border Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of State, and Chris Valadez, border initiatives coordinator for the Office of the Secretary of State.

The meeting was chaired by Avdiel Y. Huerta, assistant secretary of state for Mexican and Border Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of State. Also present were Chris Valadez, border initiatives coordinator for the Office of the Secretary of State, Mexico’s Consul in McAllen, Guillermo Ordorica Robles, Manuela A. Ortiz, representing TxDOT’s international relations office, and Caroline A. Mays, interim director of the freight and international trade section at TxDOT.

Another point Darling brought up is the need to have more consideration for the users of the bridges, the travelers that sometimes have to wait three or four hours to cross from Mexico into the United
States. Darling said the various stakeholders need to be more creative in finding the funds to staff ports of entry.

“There is a tremendous loss of money for people sitting on the bridge. For instance, I would suspect someone from Monterrey, coming here for Semana Santa, who has three kids in the back seat of the car, would pay an extra $2 a toll to eliminate two hours waiting on the bridge,” Darling said.

Although he referenced the customer service performance of Customs and Border Protection, Darling said he did not want to point the blame at anyone in particular for long wait times at the international bridges. “There is enough blame to go around because I don’t think we serve the customers as best we can. Customers need commerce, trade and prosperity. We need to start concentrating on that.”

In his closing remarks, Darling said: “We do not always move in the same direction. The challenge is out there but the opportunities for the U.S. and Mexico are tremendous. If we can work together we can turn those challenges into opportunities and success for our citizens.”

McAllen Superintendent of Bridges Rigo Villarreal also spoke at the meeting. Villarreal ran through the number of crossings on the two bridges he is responsible for. At the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, he said, there an average of 240,000 to 260,000 motorists a month, and between 90,000 to 110,000 pedestrians. At the Anzalduas-Reynosa International Bridge there are between 50,000 and 60,000 motorists every month. Anzalduas does not see many pedestrian crossers.

Villarreal said that for the last six months the number of crossings has been going up at McAllen’s two bridges, unlike neighboring bridges. He said the city is spending $3.5 million on the Hidalgo Bridge to remodel the electric grid system, the generators, the fencing and making the bridge ADA compliant.

“At Hidalgo we have 12 lanes but we have a staffing issue, we can only open five or seven lanes. At Anzalduas, it is the other way around. We only have four lanes and we have the staffing. At Anzalduas it is not enough infrastructure. At Hidalgo it is not enough staff,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal said McAllen is currently designing two new northbound lanes at Anzalduas, which would allow empty trucks to cross into the United States. And he referenced an agreement now in place that allows McAllen to help fund infrastructure on the Mexican side of Anzalduas Bridge.

“About two and a half months ago there was a binational agreement signed with the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes in Mexico, I believe the first of its kind in the nation, where a municipality and a bridge board negotiated with the federal government in Mexico to help them pay for the infrastructure for a lane,” Villarreal said.

“It is very important for the city and the region. We are going to be able to commence southbound empties in the next two and a half to three months, depending on the weather. They just started construction in Reynosa and we are very happy. The maquila association is very happy also because they are going to save $50 to $60 an hour, which is the cost of sitting idle at another bridge. We are ready on the U.S. side. We have invested $899,000, most of money paid from our own tolls.”

Villarreal said that while an additional $2.5 million is being pumped into each bridge district it is not enough. “Anzalduas needs $63 million for northbound commercial facilities. It will take us a long time before we get the money for that. The federal government on both sides is broke. The federal government in Mexico does not have any money and nor does the United States. We are going to have to put some money aside and do it on our own,” Villarreal said.

Asked what the mid-term and long-term goals are, Villarreal said: “Mid-term to add another two northbound lanes. Long term cargo both ways.”

Like Mayor Darling, Villarreal spoke about Semana Santa. He said the City of McAllen would likely spend $10,000 to $15,000 per bridge to help CBP with inspections. “At Anzalduas we can have four to five hour weight times. At Hidalgo, three to four.” Asked how much the City of McAllen pays per year to help the federal government with staffing at the two international bridges, Villarreal said around $80,000 a year.

Concluding his remarks, Villarreal asked if the Secretary of State’s Office and/or the Governor’s Office could “put something in writing” to help secure more federal funding for infrastructure at Anzalduas.

Editor’s Note: Pictured in the main image accompanying this story are McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and Mexico’s Consul in McAllen, Guillermo Ordorica Robles.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series about the meeting of federal, state and local officials from the United States and Mexico that took place at McAllen City Hall. Parts two and three will be posted later this week.