SAN BENITO, RGV – Officials with the Secretary of State’s Office, Cameron County, and the cities of Harlingen and San Benito met this week to discuss how to make the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge more attractive to commercial traffic.

Only 200 or so trucks cross the bridge a day and the officials who met at San Benito City Hall agreed that number is far too low. They agreed that the bridge has a lot going for it, such as the fact that an overweight corridor destination extending from the bridge to the Port of Brownsville exists.

Raudel Garza
Raudel Garza

“Harlingen EDC and the City of Harlingen, along with Cameron County and San Benito city and EDC officials and the Port of Brownsville, have been working together to market the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge for the last few years. As part of those efforts, we have looked at various ways of increasing traffic at the bridge,” said Raudel Garza, executive director of Harlingen Economic Development Corporation.  Garza was at the meeting at San Benito City Hall.

“There is a potential for us to capture some of the produce traffic along the border as well, and we intend to review all viable options to help in that endeavor,” Garza added.

Ownership of the four-lane international bridge is divided. Cameron County owns 50 percent, the City of Harlingen 25 percent and the City of San Benito 25 percent.

Among the reasons cited for the small number of crossings at Los Indios are lack of security on the highway leading to the bridge on the Mexican side, lack of cold storage facilities for fresh and frozen produce shippers, and a general lack of awareness in Mexico that the bridge exists. In interviews before and after the meeting at San Benito City Hall, officials involved in the discussions told the Rio Grande Guardian how those issues are being addressed.

Cris Valadez
Cris Valadez

With regard to the highway leading to Los Indios Bridge being unsecure on the Mexican side, Cris Valadez, border initiatives coordinator for the Secretary of State’s Office, said: “The mayor of Matamoros, Lety Salazar, is going to make an announcement soon that she has assurances that the Mexican military will adequately man the highway leading to Los Indios.”

With regard to cold storage, Valadez provided the Rio Grande Guardian with copies of letters from three trucking companies that want to see such facilities built at Los Indios. The companies are MLS Freight Logistics, doing business as Mike’s Loading Service, which is based in Edinburg, Texas; Clúster de Transporte y Logística (CTYL) de Nuevo León, which is based in Monterrey, Mexico; and RS Transfer, which is based in Matamoros, Mexico.

In his letter to Valdez, José H. Hernández, Jr., logistics manager for MLS Freight Logistics, wrote: “Thank you for taking the time to show us around the Los Indios Bridge facilities and sharing the upcoming proposed projects, like the cold storage. Since we handle fresh and frozen loads for our customers daily, this proposal would widen the options available along the Rio Grande Valley border with Mexico. Please keep us informed of any development in regards to said projects as we are eager to explore future opportunities that lead to new business.”

Celeste Sanchez
Celeste Sanchez

Hugo González González, director general of CTYL, wrote his letter to Valadez in Spanish. Translated into English, it reads: “As we have said on several occasions, logistics and supply chains are absolutely critical for international trade. However, logistics for cold storage is certainly the most critical because fresh produce is perishable. The demand for products in the United States continues to grow but lack of instillations to store and distribute these products are not growing at the same pace as demand. The installation of cold storage facilities at Los Indios would promote international trade and definitely help speed up the crossing and distribution of perishable products.”

In his letter to Valdez, Sergio García, owner of RS Transfer, wrote: “I write to make you aware of my support for the proposed cold-room at Los Indios Bridge. My company handles many refrigerated loads a year and Los Indios has not been an option because of the lack of cold room in the inspection area, like at the Pharr Bridge and the Laredo Bridge. If this project does get completed, my company would have another option of where to cross our loads. I want to go on record that I support this project.”

With regard to marketing Los Indios, Cameron County Judge Pete Sepulveda, Jr., said: “We had that discussion at our meeting in San Benito. I think everyone agreed it is important to aggressively market the bridge in Mexico so during the coming months we will want to put a plan of action in place to develop a scope for it and then price it and then start funding it with the different organizations. And then, through joint marketing between the different organizations.”

Among those at the San Benito meeting with Valadez, Raudel Garza, and Sepulveda, were Cameron County Administrator David Garcia, San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez, San Benito Mayor Pro-Tem Antonio Gonzales, San Benito City Manager Art Rodriguez, and San Benito Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Salomon Torres.

Mayor Sanchez told the Rio Grande Guardian that the Free Trade Bridge is a potential crown jewel for her city.

“The Los Indios Bridge has great potential for more crossings. Together with our regional partners – the City of Harlingen, Cameron County, the Port of Brownsville, and others — we are committed to work together to make that happen. Yes, we want to increase crossings to increase revenue, but that is only part of the story. The bridge is a critical asset that we must use to recruit new companies to San Benito and the bridge industrial area. To import Mexican produce, for example, a cold storage building is eventually going to have to be built.”

Judge Sepulveda agreed. “If we want to attract fresh produce industry traffic at some point we are going to have to provide those kinds of facilities. Constructing a cold storage facility is a relatively small project but it is good enough to get started with and then expand on it if we are successful. We want to proceed with it and so each respective body – that being the City of San Benito, the City of Harlingen, and Cameron County – will have to go back to their respective commissions and get it approved.”

Asked how much money an initial cold storage facility at Los Indios would cost, Sepulveda said: “You are probably talking about a half a million dollar project but we think it can be a start to help us start attracting additional commercial traffic to the Free Trade Bridge. So, during the next couple of weeks we will try to get formal approvals and hopefully get the funding that is needed so that we can proceed with the project.”

Pete Sepulveda, Jr.
Pete Sepulveda, Jr.

Asked what half a million dollars would buy, Sepulveda said: “About 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of cold storage facilities. That might not sound like a lot of space but it is enough to get us started and that is our goal right now, to get something out there. Hopefully it is successful and then demand increases and we can look at other options for increasing that square footage for cold storage space.”

Asked if funding for the cold storage facility would be split in the same way ownership of the Free Trade Bridge is, Sepulveda said: “That is the discussion we had and that probably makes the most sense. We are probably looking at that – 50 percent by the county and 25 percent each from Harlingen and San Benito.”

Regarding cold storage at Los Indios, Sepulveda added: “This is a long-term project, we are not looking at a return on investment in the short-term. We realize that. But there is quite a bit of potential from these trade corridors. We want to position ourselves and be able to provide those facilities that are needed by the fresh produce industry so that they can at least consider us as a viable option.”

Asked if Los Indios could also attract more maquila industry shipments, Sepulveda said: “I think so. It depends on where traffic originates and where their destination is. I think it is a great route for any destination that involves the Port of Brownsville. If you have got products coming in from Mazatlán, Durango, even Monterrey, and their destination is the Port of Brownsville, then obviously it makes a lot of sense to utilize the Free Trade Bridge. For the local maquiladora traffic in Reynosa and Matamoros, it depends on their destination. It is rather easy to come across, there are no trucks waiting in line. There are a lot of pros to using our bridge.”

Asked if an overweight corridor designation was now in place at Los Indios, Sepulveda said: “We are approved to go from the Free Trade Bridge on FM 509 and then on I-69 East all the way to State Highway 550 and then onto the Port of Brownsville. It has been approved by the State Legislature. We do not have the agreements between TxDOT and the Port of Brownsville in place but the route itself has been designated and approve by the State Legislature.”

Salomon Torres
Salomon Torres

San Benito EDC’s Torres said the discussions at San Benito City Hall were productive.

“There is a consensus to partner financially in constructing a cold storage building at the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios. Harlingen and San Benito would each contribute 25 percent of the cost and the County would contribute the other 50 percent. A cost estimate will be revised and distributed to the group. We think it will be about a $450,000-$500,000 project. We will then proceed to request proposals to build it and proposals for an entity to operate it. Harlingen will likely to take the lead,” Torres said.

Torres said there was also a good discussion on why border crossings are not high at Los Indios.

“There are security concerns with regard to the Mexican roadways, Mexican companies’ unfamiliarity with Los Indios as a crossing point, lack of cold storage space, of course, and the old habits by Mexican shippers and trucking companies to use the Pharr Bridge,” Torres said.

“I shared with the group the latest figures from Cameron County comparing Los Indios and Veterans Bridges. The numbers clearly show a disparity in crossings and revenue generation.”