MISSION, RGV – A multi-year, $305 billion highway authorization bill passed this week by Congress gives the governors of border states flexibility to direct transportation funding to border region projects that help alleviate bottlenecks and congestion at international ports of entry.

The bill is called the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and it allocates an average of $3.67 billion per year for the next five years for Texas transportation projects.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn

Various provisions in the bill that will help the border region secure more federal transportation dollars were drawn up by border legislators such as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio.

One of the provisions Cornyn added to the bill creates a Coordinated Border Infrastructure Reserve Fund, giving border states more flexibility in how they use federal transportation funds. Cornyn said states like Texas will be able to reserve up to five percent of statewide Surface Transportation Funds for qualified border infrastructure purposes, providing funding certainty and allowing stakeholders and border communities to advocate for border infrastructure.

“As the top exporting state in the nation, Texas already transports more than $100 billion in goods to Mexico each year, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. Giving states like ours more flexibility to invest in infrastructure along the border has the potential to facilitate more international trade, boosting jobs and economic growth,” Cornyn said.

Cuellar agreed. “The Coordinated Border Infrastructure Reserve Fund will undoubtedly benefit border communities across my district and the country by dedicating more money to ports of entry,” Cuellar said. “My hometown of Laredo is host to the nation’s largest inland port, which services over 14,000 daily commercial truck crossings and 1,500 daily rail crossings. The large volumes of traffic passing over the border across South Texas place a tremendous strain on our border transportation infrastructure making it imperative that the infrastructure around our nation’s ports and trade centers remain in peak condition to ensure our economy keeps moving forward. I would like to thank my colleagues who supported this provision and worked to get it included in the bill.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar

Rep. O’Rourke said: “Wait times at five of the busiest ports of entry along our southern border result in an economic loss of $166 million per minute. The passage of this bipartisan bill means states like Texas can direct funds to repair and upgrade infrastructure at our ports of entry resulting in reduced wait times and increased economic and job growth for communities like El Paso.”

Rep. Hurd represents the 23rd Congressional District in Texas. It stretches 820 miles along the Texas-Mexico border. Hurd was a member of the conference committee for the highway bill. He said international trade and commerce is not just important for many of communities in his district, the 23rd Congressional District in Texas. He said it is vital for the national economy as well. “Providing states the flexibility to invest in the infrastructure that makes this type of commerce possible not only benefits the families who live along the border, but ultimately boosts trade for the entire state of Texas, and the nation.”

The Border Trade Alliance, a non-profit group that advocates for more infrastructure at border ports of entry, has cheered passage of the bill. BTA Chairman Jesse Hereford of San Antonio said there is key language in the bill that reflects the unique needs of the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico border regions.

“Today’s passage of a long-term transportation bill proves that Congress can still accomplish big things and do so in a bipartisan way. This legislation is critically important for our country’s border regions, which are struggling to ensure that their infrastructure keeps pace with today’s trade volumes,” said Hereford, who handles government affairs and business development for S&B Infrastructure.

Jesse Hereford
Jesse Hereford

Hereford was in Washington to see final passage of the FAST legislation, along with Russ Jones, BTA’s vice-chairman. Jones is president of RL Jones Customhouse Brokers, Inc., which has operations in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The Border Trade Alliance thanks Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Henry Cuellar, Rep. Will Hurd, Rep. Michael McCaul and Rep. Beto O’Rourke for working together to include language in the final bill that allows governors of border states the flexibility to direct transportation funding to border region projects that help alleviate bottlenecks and congestion and promote the safe and efficient movement of freight,” Jones said.

Hereford said the passage of the transportation bill was a long time coming.

“Border state departments of transportation and communities from San Diego to Brownsville, and northern border cities like Detroit and Buffalo, for too long have been unable to make infrastructure plans for the long-term, and they have seen backups around their ports of entry only grow as a result. Many in Texas’ border delegation deserve credit for getting this deal done, as do Sen. Barbara Boxer, the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who was always willing to listen to the concerns of the border.”

Jones said that determining how to pay for the transportation bill was the major point of debate over many months. “One mechanism that was arrived at was using Customs fees. We believe that any funds generated by Customs and Border Protection that are used to help fund this bill should find their way back to the border. If the agency responsible for the facilitation of trade is going to help pay for transportation, then at the very least those funds should be used for trade-facilitating projects,” Jones said.

Hereford added: “The BTA was on Capitol Hill this week meeting with members of the conference committee as the bill made its final steps toward passage. This result is a big win for the border, and we look forward to it receiving the president’s swift signature.”

One of the provisions Cuellar added is designed to ensure that the federal government properly defines trade corridors as beginning and ending at land border ports of entry, while also providing funding for freight mobility and connection to the interstate highway system. The provision ensures that stretches of road from border ports of entry are added to the national Primary Freight Network.

“The current Primary Freight Network misses key portions of our nation’s interstate system with its cap of 27,000 miles,” Cuellar said. “However, this bill will increase the cap to 41,518 miles and absorb key stretches of road from border ports of entry, including Interstate Highway 35 from Laredo to San Antonio.”

Cuellar thanked Senator Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, for adding language to the bill to ensure border states have the flexibility to reserve certain federal highway funds for qualified border infrastructure projects.

“The border region has hundreds of billions of dollars in trade flowing in and out. Tens of thousands of trucks cross the border between Texas and Mexico every day. This puts a tremendous strain on our border transportation infrastructure,” Cuellar said. “Under this bill, a border state will be able to set aside up to 5 percent of statewide surface transportation funds for transportation infrastructure projects along our nation’s borders. This is important as it will allow our border communities more certainty in planning vital infrastructure project.”

Cuellar said he worked with U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, to designate Texas State Highway 44 from U.S. Route 59 at Freer to Texas State Highway 358 in Corpus Christi as a National Highway System High-Priority Corridor. He said this gives Highway 44 from Freer to Corpus Christi the same designation as Route 59, I-35, and Highway 83 coming out of Laredo.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke

“This designation provides for the potential of increased federal funding and preferential treatment in applying for project grants,” Cuellar said. “The border is a powerhouse for large-scale trade and we need more funding to keep up with infrastructure improvements and that is precisely what I have fought for in this bill. I would like to thank Chairmen Inhofe and Shuster, Ranking Members Boxer and DeFazio, the members of their committees, and the members of the conference committee for their hard work.”

Cuellar said he and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, added language to the bill to authorize an “intelligent freight transportation system” that will connect land ports of entry with current federal-aid highways. “There is a need to balance security with commerce at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the nation needs improved transportation infrastructure connecting ports of entry to the federal highway system. An intelligent freight transportation system will help overcome congestion while enhancing throughput,” Cuellar said.

McCaul agreed.

“Our homeland security deserves our utmost attention, and that starts at our border,” McCaul said. “By ensuring Texas has the flexibility to invest these funds in border infrastructure, our nation will be safer while paving the way to better American access to global economic opportunities. The inclusion of this provision will also support critical jobs in my district, which exported $11.5 billion worth of goods and services in 2013. By providing this certainty in funding for infrastructure improvements, we will be able to address the problems currently being encountered at the border.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz voted against the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. One of the reasons for this, he said, is that it reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank. He said this bank is a quintessential example of cronyism and corporate welfare. Using various budget gimmicks and one-time revenue raisers, the bill guarantees an even larger shortfall in 2020 when the next highway bill comes up, Cruz said.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd

“The Export-Import Bank is an egregious example of corporate welfare and has no business being reauthorized — period, much less snuck through as part of an alleged must-pass bill,” Cruz said. “The Ex-Im Bank board of directors still lacks enough members to approve big loans that put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars of loan guarantees for big business, so at least for now, the Bank is still prevented from making big loans to giant corporations favored by the Washington Cartel.”

Cruz added: “The underlying highway bill itself is fiscally irresponsible, doing nothing to put our highway programs on a firm financial footing, nor does it do anything to move more funding and decision-making to the state level, as envisioned by Sen. Lee’s Transportation Empowerment Act. The American people expect the Republican-led Congress to do better than this.”

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, however, supports the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Executive CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran said: “The Conference of Mayors today is pleased that we are finally moving beyond short-term extensions and now have a long-term renewal of the nation’s surface transportation law, providing mayors and local leaders and so many others with more certainty and resources to move forward with critically needed transportation projects.

“We are especially pleased that the conference agreement addresses so many priorities of the nation’s mayors, including additional funding commitments to transit and rail systems and to metropolitan and local areas, including funding flexibility for local governments.

“Reaching agreement on a long-term renewal plan is a testament to the hard work and bipartisanship of so many in Congress. The nation’s mayors are thankful Congress found common ground for the good of the American people who travel everyday on our bridges and highway, transit and rail systems.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows a truck from the Mexican company Olympics crossing the border at Laredo, Texas. (Photo: Reuters/Josue Gonzalez).