As we turn the page to a new year, the Border Trade Alliance can look back on 2015 having accomplished much for the cross-border trade community.
We kicked off 2015 with a bang, hosting a high-level delegation of the House Homeland Security Committee led by Chairman Michael McCaul at a McAllen, Texas event with business and community leaders who hailed from El Paso to Brownsville. This is the kind of access the BTA prides itself on, as we were able to give members of Congress true insight into the challenges facing the trade community of the U.S.-Mexico border region.
The BTA is often counted on to provide elected officials and policymakers the on-the-ground assessment of the border, and 2015 was no different. The year saw us speaking on border issues at major events like Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s outstanding United States-Mexico Summit in conjunction with UTEP; we partnered with the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center to co-produce a second annual event on border region competitiveness that featured such luminaries as Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Will Hurd, Rep. Henry Cuellar, and Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske; and we were invited to testify before the Border and Maritime Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, where our past chairman, Sam Vale, and Cameron County Administrator David Garcia, discussed the development of forward-thinking public-private partnerships between CBP and the private sector and local governments to improve staffing levels and infrastructure at land border ports of entry.
Speaking of public-private partnerships, the BTA has been the major land border organization working with Congress and CBP to ensure that Sec. 559 – the formal name of the program – is providing program participants and trade stakeholders the results they expect. We were encouraged that the South Texas Assets Consortium, one of two original Sec. 559 participants on the land border, was able to leverage the power of the program to secure additional state-level assistance to improve port staffing levels. STAC, which is made up of BTA member cities Laredo, McAllen, Pharr, as well as Cameron County and the Starr-Camargo Bridge Co. in Rio Grande City, earned a major grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture to help offset the costs of bringing on additional CBP Agriculture Specialists. The BTA was proud to support STAC’s grant application as we seek ways to encourage growing cross-border agriculture trade.
As trade volumes grow, we must ensure that we have not only adequate staff but the infrastructure to alleviate bottlenecks and congestion, not just at the ports, but in the connecting roads that carry freight onto our highways. That’s why the BTA in 2015 worked so hard to press for adoption of a long-term highway funding bill that reflected the unique needs of the nation’s borders. We cheered the adoption of the first multi-year transportation bill since 2005, which contained key language that will allow border state governors the flexibility to use transportation dollars on border region projects. This pro-trade, pro-border element of the bill was made possible by the bipartisan collaboration of Sen. Cornyn, Rep. Cuellar, Rep. Hurd, Rep. McCaul and Rep. O’Rourke, all leaders the northern and southern borders have come to count on for their commitment to ensuring commerce can flow without unnecessary delays.
The year in border infrastructure was also marked by major achievements in the rail and environmental sectors. Kudos to Cameron County Judge Pete Sepulveda, a past chairman, who oversaw the opening of the West Rail Bridge, the first cross-border rail bridge to be completed in over 100 years, which will mean new options for shippers on both sides of the border. On the environmental side, the BTA successfully supported an increase in working and callable capital for the North American Development Bank, an institution that over the last 20 years has invested $2.5 billion in U.S.-Mexico border environmental infrastructure projects and has dramatically improved the region’s quality of life.
Our ambitious agenda will continue in 2016. Russ Jones, a customs broker with operations in California, Arizona and Texas, will take the reins as chair of the organization from Jesse Hereford, who served as chair the past three years. We deeply appreciate Jesse’s years of service to the BTA. We anticipate that Russ’ tenure will also be marked by much accomplishment and progress.
Our members on both borders, public and private sector, and our many allies in Washington, D.C. were integral to the success of the BTA in 2015. We look forward to strengthening these relationships in 2016 as together we work for more vibrant, prosperous borders.