MISSION, RGV – At a time when there is so much negative commentary about the border region, South Texas lawmakers deserve a lot of praise for passing legislation that opens up border bridges to more commerce.

This is the view of McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who spoke via conference call about the impact of Senate Bill 797/House Bill 979 at a news conference held at the offices of the Texas International Produce Association in Mission, Texas.

“This was a difficult bill to pass, especially with some of the rhetoric related to border security. This legislation is the other side of border security. It is about an open border, not a closed border and it is great to have the State participate in and understand that moving goods and people across the river is very, very, important, not only for the Valley but the state of Texas,” Darling said.

SB 797, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and sponsored by state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, D-McAllen, created the Texas Agricultural Inspection Grant Program. Under this program the Texas Department of Agriculture has awarded a grant of $652,500 to the South Texas Assets Consortium.

STAC, a non-profit set up by bridge operators in South Texas, will use the money to pay for increased man hours by agricultural inspectors at up to 11 commercial ports of entry in Laredo, Rio Grande City, McAllen-Mission, Pharr and Cameron County.

“This goes to show we can operate in the Valley as a team and make sure we look at the regional issues before we turn and look at our own self-interest,” Darling added.

Attending the news conference to announce the awarding of the grant were Bret Erickson, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association, Luis Bazán, interim director of the Pharr International Bridge, Sam Vale, co-founder of STAC and president of Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, and Rep. Guerra.

Guerra filed the companion bill to SB 797 in the House. It was numbered House Bill 979. Guerra said it took him two legislative sessions to pass his bill. The first session, he said, Tea Party members in the Texas House were opposed to spending money to fix an issue that should be funded by the federal government. Guerra said he pointed out that the State of Texas was spending a lot more money on border security and that, too, is a federal responsibility.

After the first legislative session, Guerra said, he had to be content with a study of the issue of agricultural inspectors and this led to a hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture & Livestock being held in McAllen in October, 2014. Committee members also toured the Pharr International Bridge, which is where most of the fresh produce coming from Mexico crosses into Texas. The legislative hearing and tour of the Pharr inspection facilities was key in educating House members on the need for more agricultural inspectors, Guerra said.

“I am pleased to see that STAC and other non-profits are taking advantage of the Trade Agricultural Inspection Grant Program,” Guerra said. “These ports of entry promote sustainable job growth in the surrounding communities, attract more businesses to invest in our state, and, most importantly, will bolster the Texas economy.”

Guerra added that a shortage of agricultural inspectors was causing more congestion at commercial bridges. He said the need for more inspectors will become even more acute when the full impact of the Mazatlán-to-Matamoros super highway in Mexico is felt. A lot more fresh produce from the state of Sinaloa is expected to cross in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, rather than Nogales, Arizona, once the superhighway is fully operational, Guerra said.

Vale, co-founder of STAC, agreed. “It (truck crossings) is going to grow so fast you are not going to be able to put enough lanes and enough inspectors on the border to make it a smooth, one-stop, fast process,” Vale said. “These are real jobs. It is all about supplying the food to the United States of America.”

Vale pointed out that every day a truck of fresh produce is stuck at a border port of entry, ten percent of the market value of its cargo is lost. He said information posted on Customs & Border Protection’s own website shows that for every additional customs officer, ten jobs are created due to increased economic activity.

Thanks to legislation passed at the federal level, Vale said, STAC can use private and local government funding to help pay the overtime for customs officers working at land ports of entry. “Now, you truly have private money and public money from different levels of government working together to produce a better quality of life for the state of Texas,” Vale said.

Vale added that particular thanks should go to Mayor Darling and the City of McAllen for getting behind the Lucio/Guerra legislation when the city does not, currently, have any international bridges that can take truck traffic carrying fresh produce.

TIPA President Erickson said the awarding of the grant could not have come at a better time.

“Our peak produce season ramps up in November and January, February and March are peak months for the produce industry. The timing will be perfect. It (the grant funding) will be available when the peak produce season is here and we can, hopefully, expand our hours of coverage on evenings and weekends in the first quarter of next year,” Erickson said.

Erickson said he doubted that many people understand how reliant domestic agricultural producers in South Texas are on imports coming from Mexico. “Many of our largest domestic producers are some our largest importers. By importing fresh produce throughout the year it helps these businesses run throughout the year. It helps keep their employees on the job. It keeps the trucks on the road throughout the year. And it provides fresh produce to consumers year round. It is an important piece of our local and state economy, to keep these produce trucks moving as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Erickson added that after the Trade Agricultural Inspection Grant Program has been running a couple of years, data can be collated to show how truck movement at international bridges has been speeded up, the value of the cargo on the trucks, and the additional economic activity generated because of more efficient crossing times.

Guerra agreed. “In a couple of years I want to be able to go back to my colleagues in the Legislature and say, look what good this has done for Texas and look at the economic impact it has had. Let’s continue to work on projects like these.”

Pharr’s Bazán said his city and bridge board spent about $80,000 in 2014 to pay for the overtime of customs staff. He said a similar amount would be spent this year. Bazán also said Pharr is ready to help McAllen with its bridge needs.

“Anything the City of McAllen and Anzalduas needs… I know you guys have had some conversations with our mayor and some of our electeds so we want to just make sure that you know we are on board and anything we can do to facilitate things on our end, please let us know,” Bazán told Mayor Darling.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows Luis Bazán, interim director of the Pharr International Bridge, Sam Vale, co-founder of the South Texas Assets Consortium and president of Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, state Representative R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, and Bret Erickson, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association. They are pictured at the offices of the Texas International Produce Association in Mission, Texas.