McALLEN, RGV – The legislation wasn’t brought up directly at the Border to Border Transportation Conference but former state Senator Eliot Shapleigh’s bill to create a Texas-Mexico Border Czar and a Texas-Mexico Border Commission was referenced indirectly.

The conversation started when Caroline Mays, who is developing a border freight plan for the Texas Department of Transportation, repeated what border stakeholders have told her: that Texas needs an overarching state agency that can handle all Texas-Mexico issues.

Mays’ remarks were endorsed by Serafin Maya Sotelo, undersecretary for urban planning in the office of Tamaulipas Governor Egidio Torre Cantú. Maya Sotelo pointed out that Tamaulipas was unaware of some of the international bridges being planned by South Texas border communities. Likewise, he said, Texas officials are most likely unaware of a major new highway being built from Mexico City to Matamoros.

State Rep. Armando Martinez, who won a transportation champion award at the conference, told the Rio Grande Guardian that he was “alarmed” to learn that Texas is planning border infrastructure projects without telling Mexico and vice versa.

“I am alarmed that we are not talking to each other but not necessarily surprised. We clearly need a state agency that oversees all our border activity to make sure we are doing things efficiently. I am looking forward to working with all the agencies and entities represented at this conference and possibly filing legislation that will create such an organization. We need better coordination,” Martinez told the Guardian.

State Representative Armando Martinez and Serafin Maya Sotelo, Tamaulipas' under-secretary for urban planning, are pictured at the Border to Border Transportation Conference.
State Representative Armando Martinez and Serafin Maya Sotelo, Tamaulipas’ under-secretary for urban planning, are pictured at the Border to Border Transportation Conference.

Martinez said he is sure Governor-elect Greg Abbott’s appointee for Secretary of State – Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos – will understand the need for a Border Czar and a Texas-Mexico Border Commission. “Carlos can help. He understands the border and what makes us tick,” Martinez said.

The three-day 5th Annual Border to Border Transportation Conference was hosted by the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Organization and held at the McAllen Convention Center.

In her remarks, TxDOT’s Mays spoke about Texas-Mexico border freight challenges. She said she had participated in a meeting in San Diego, California, where it became clear the United States and Mexico were not sharing all the transportation planning data it could. “We are all planning in vacuum. At a peer exchange in San Diego we talked about challenges. We don’t know what they are planning. They do not know what we are planning,” Mays said, referring to the U.S. and Mexico.

Before Mays made her presentation, Pete Sepulveda, speaking on behalf of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, spoke about a number of border infrastructure projects he is working on. In a question and answer session afterwards, Maya Sotelo told Sepulveda that he and the State of Tamaulipas’ governor’s office were unaware of some of the projects listed in the power point presentation. “They are not in our plans,” Maya Sotelo said.

Interviewed by the Guardian afterwards, Maya Sotelo elaborated on his remarks from the floor.

“There is a lack of communication and coordination between the U.S. and Mexico. Part of the problem is that in Mexico we do not have the civil service career system. The staff changes with every new administration,” Maya Sotelo said. Asked if that includes him, Maya Sotelo answered affirmatively. “Yes, that includes me. When our administration ends we will have to start all over again.”

Maya Sotelo said there are two international bridge projects in the Cameron County master transportation plan he was unaware of. “There are two bridges that we are not taking into account in our plans. One of them will connect to the Port of Brownsville. It is important.” He said there were also border infrastructure projects being planned in Laredo that Mexico was not up to speed on.

Just to prove the lack of communication and coordination works both ways, Maya Sotelo highlighted a new superhighway that has been built from Mexico City to Tuxpan, Veracruz. He said it connects to Tampico and Matamoros and will allow truckers to shave one and a half hours off their journey from Mexico City to Matamoros.

“It connects a market of 30 million people in the Mexico City metro area to the border region and people here do not know about it. It is not in their plans. We need better coordination,” Maya Sotelo said.

“There is always a break in continuity on the Mexico side. We need to create a new state commission for Texas-Tamaulipas relations. But, we need to copy the U.S. characteristics not the Mexican characteristics. We need to have career staff with fixed salaries that are not tied to politics.”

Asked if Governor Torre Cantú would back such a proposal, Maya Sotelo said it stood a better chance of success if the idea came from state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, rather than himself. Hinojosa spoke at the Border to Border Transportation Conference. Maya Sotelo made sure Hinojosa knew about his proposal for a Texas-Tamaulipas Commission. “Our Governor has shown he is flexible on energy. I think he will be on this suggestion,” Maya Sotelo added.

After TxDOT’s Mays spoke about the need for better lines of communication and coordination, TxDOT colleague Eduardo Hagert asked in the question and answer session if TxDOT could become the state agency that interacts with the State of Tamaulipas on international issues. Mays responded: “That agency would not be TxDOT. That agency has to be an impartial agency,” Mays said, noting that the Secretary of State’s Office handles border affairs for the Governor’s Office. “How about a Texas border agency/Mexico border authority that coordinates everything?” Mays asked. “TxDOT will have a role to play. We do not have a statewide entity (to do it).”

The Guardian interviewed Mays later during the conference. She said stakeholders up and down the Texas-Mexico border, from El Paso to Brownsville, have told her that when it comes to interaction with Mexico, far better coordination is needed at the state level.

“We heard loud and clear from the stakeholders that there is a need for a coordinated border strategy. Each of the border areas is trying to address their own issues but there is no big picture (agency),” Mays said.

“They (border stakeholders) are looking for an entity to give them a voice. At the state level it is the Secretary of State’s Office but they have a lot of other responsibilities. With the freight plan, the stakeholders asked who is going to implement all of the recommendations. We at TxDOT will have a piece of it but it is not all TxDOT-related. We are a small piece of that. TxDOT is a transportation agency. We need something that is a lot bigger.”

TxDOT’s Hagert is a senior analyst in the state agency’s international division. Hagert said he was pleased to hear discussion about improved coordination between Texas and Mexico. However, he said legislation is already on the books to set up a Border Czar and a Texas-Mexico Border Commission.

“The tools are there. Previously, I worked for a state senator who passed legislation to set up a Border Czar. Senator Hinojosa expressed interest in a commission similar to what Arizona has with the State of Sonora. That legislation has been passed by the same senator, creating a Texas-Mexico Commission. In my opinion the tools are already there and people simply do not know about them. I communicated with Senator Hinojosa and gave him some of the information,” Hagert said.

The former senator Hagert was referring to is Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. Hagert was Shapleigh’s chief of staff.