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Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, is pictured being interviewed in front of the Starr-Camargo International Bridge in Rio Grande City in May, 2013. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – President Obama has signed into law legislation that permanently extends the operating authority of the Starr-Camargo International Bridge in Rio Grande City.

The legislation was authored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. A companion bill was authored in the U.S. House by Congressman Henry Cuellar. The legislation had the support of Starr County Judge Eloy Vera and state Rep. Ryan Guillen. Businessman Sam Vale is president of Starr-Camargo Bridge Company.

Operating authority for the Starr-Camargo International Bridge would have expired in 2032, according to the temporary authorization provided by Congress in 1962. In a statement, Cornyn said the bridge’s permanency means easier long-term planning, greater cross-border trade and commerce, and regional economic growth.

“Because of the bipartisan efforts of federal, state, and local officials, those who depend on the Starr-Camargo International Bridge finally have the long-term certainty they need,” Cornyn said. “I want to thank Rep. Cuellar for working with me as we continue to streamline efforts to boost trade and strengthen the relationship between south Texas and Mexico.”

Cuellar said the Starr-Camargo bridge will now be on equal footing with other permanently-authorized international bridges in Texas and throughout the country.

“As the representative for the Starr-Camargo Bridge, I understand how extending the bridge company’s charter will bring economic certainty to the region,” Cuellar said in a statement. He pointed out that U.S. trades an estimated $531 billion in goods and services with Mexico, the nation’s third-largest trading partner. Cuellar said this trade is only expected to grow in the future, especially under the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Contributing to this trade the Starr-Camargo Bridge supports the transit of 200-300 commercial trucks a day and around 4,000 cars. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of the charter’s sunset had begun slowing down investment in and around the bridge, at a time when we need the certainty this bill creates,” Cuellar said.

“I thank Sen. Cornyn for working on this legislation with me and advancing it through the Senate. I also thank Ed Royce, Chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot L. Engel, ranking member of the committee, for their support in advancing the bill through the House. Finally, I would like to thank House Majority Whip Steve Scalise for bringing this legislation to the floor.”

Cornyn’s bill to authorize permanent operating authority passed the full Senate unanimously on Thursday, March 17, and it passed the full House on Monday, May 16.

Vale testifies

Coincidentally, Vale was in Washington, D.C., last week to testify before House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management. He appeared in his capacity as chairman of the public policy committee of the Border Trade Alliance.

Vale was on Capitol Hill to testify in support of public-private partnerships to boost infrastructure investment at border ports of entry. He is president of the South Texas Assets Consortium, otherwise known as STAC, which participates in the 559 Public Private Partnership Program with Customs & Border Protection.

Vale said the private sector has important role to play in developing border infrastructure. He called on Congress to the red tape surrounding public-private partnerships and to better align staffing resources in developing new border facilities.

“The U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders are challenging environments for those of us whose daily livelihoods depend on cross-border trade. Most U.S. citizens also benefit from this trade,” Vale testified.

Vale said staffing levels by federal inspection agencies, especially Customs and Border Protection, are not commensurate with today’s trade volumes. He said that despite funding provided by the fiscal year 2014 budget to hire 2,000 new CBP officers, 40 percent of those allocated positions remain unfilled.

Noting that CBP recently acknowledged that it can take up to 18 months to hire new staff, Vale said: “I can assure you, if those of us in the private sector took 18 months to recruit new talent, we would soon be suffering economic pain.”

Vale also testified about the need for new infrastructure at land ports of entry.

“Aging, outmoded infrastructure is also a major challenge for the trade community. Land ports of entry average 40 years in age, many built before the North American Free Trade Agreement was even a consideration. As a result, their configurations are oftentimes not well suited to the throngs of commercial trucks they must process on a daily basis.”

Vale said that the trade community’s concerns over staffing levels and infrastructure are not mutually exclusive. “Both must be addressed if we are to realize the full benefits of international trade,” Vale testified. “We would encourage the committee, as you consider future border station construction, to work closely with your colleagues with oversight over CBP staffing, federal and state highway needs, Department of Transportation and state DOT inspection staffing issues, in order to ensure that precious taxpayers dollars pay dividends to our citizens and the businesses that drive our economy.”

Vale praised the Department of Homeland Security, CBP and Congress for “innovative thinking.” He was referring to the setting up of the Section 559 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. He said that thanks to Section 559, the trade community “now has a viable option to work in tandem with state and federal partners to supplement staffing levels and improve infrastructure to support secure international trade.”

Under these reimbursable service agreements, Vale said, local governments and private sector entities can apply available funds to secure expanded services at their ports of entry to facilitate trade and travel processing.

Vale said that while the Border Trade Alliance applauds the donation acceptance program administered through CBP and the General Services Administration, two big ideas must drive the program: a commitment to flexibility, and a recognition that a demonstrable return on investment will be critical to attract private dollars.

Regarding flexibility, Vale said: “Anyone who has attempted to undertake infrastructure improvements at land border ports of entry is intimately aware of the Department of State’s expensive, time consuming permit process. I can tell you from personal experience that the permitting process is not an easy one.”

Regarding a return on investment, Vale said: “To be blunt, real estate investors and members of the international trade community are not charities. CBP should be prepared to demonstrate the financial upside for a private sector participant in the DAP, including increased trade throughput, whether by values or commodities or traffic volumes.”

Border Trade Alliance comments

BTA President Noe Garcia, III said the House hearing was a good chance for lawmakers to understand the critical infrastructure needs facing the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders.

“The BTA acknowledges that today’s budget realities require innovative thinking if we’re going to ensure our infrastructure can handle today’s trade volumes,” Garcia said. “The private sector is ready to step up to the challenge, but we need as few bureaucratic hurdles as possible if the participation rate is going to be strong and sustainable.”

Garcia pointed out that the BTA in 2013 and 2014 was a strong supporter of the legislation that made public-private partnerships possible, and worked closely with leaders on Capitol Hill who ushered it to passage.

“The BTA is proud to have played such an active role in bringing the public-private partnerships for the border to fruition,” Garcia said. “These programs now give border communities and private sector stakeholders a chance to directly influence the service levels at their local ports, where before they were at the mercy of the federal government. I expect participation rates only to grow in the coming years.”