RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – History was made in Rio Grande City on Monday with the inauguration of a unified U.S.-Mexico cargo processing system pilot program at the Starr-Camargo International Bridge.

It is the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley, a program whereby trucks crossing a port of entry are inspected only once, rather than on both sides of the bridge. VIPs at an inauguration ceremony said they believe the international trade industry will embrace the program and that other land ports in South Texas will want to introduce a similar pilot program.

“This CBP-SAT partnership is an innovative approach to processing cargo through the Rio Grande City port of entry,” said David John Gonzalez, port director for Rio Grande City.

“The unified cargo processing operation will allow Mexico customs to complete their outbound inspections and allow CBP to complete their inbound inspections at the same time, eliminating unnecessary delays and duplication of effort, while facilitating border security and lawful commerce.”

CBP stands for Customs and Border Protection. SAT stands for Servicio de Administración Tributaria.

“The unified cargo processing operation will be coupled with increased training, and information sharing designed to enhance national security for both countries. It reflects on the United States and Mexico’s shared commitment to facilitating cross border commerce,” Gonzalez added.

Among the dignitaries to speak at the event were Gonzalez, Alfonso Lino Muñoz, administrador de la Aduana in Ciudad Camargo, Tamaulipas, Brad Skinner, assistant director of operations for CBP in the Laredo Field Office, Guillermo Peredo Rivera, administrador central de operación Aduanera, Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal, Edelmira García Delgado, presidenta municipal d Ciudad Camargo, Tamaulipas, Claudia Lagos Galindo, sub secretaria de promocion de inversions de la Secretaria de Desarollo Economico del Gobierno de Tamaulipas, Yahleel Abdala Carmona, diputado federal por la LXIII Legislatura Distrito 1 (Nuevo Laredo), and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar.

The remarks of CBP’s Skinner are included at the end of this story.

Expansion of Starr Camargo International Bridge

Sam Vale, president of Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, said the new inspection facility will increase capacity at his bridge. He also revealed plans to build two new bridges.

“This new inspection process means that 70 percent of our bridge users are eligible for unified cargo processing, which essentially means that without adding any infrastructure, we are doubling our capacity,” Vale told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Asked if the new system would entice trucking companies to use his bridge over others in the Valley, Vale said: “There is so much trade to go around you do not have to fight about it. Some communities like to sit and fight for the traffic. The truth is there are not enough lanes available for all the traffic and all we do is send it somewhere else, by air or by some other means if we don’t get it crossed at a South Texas port. A truck that crosses in Rio Grande City, nine times out of ten ends up in McAllen or Harlingen or Laredo, believe it or not. Then they trans-load to American trucks and go further north.”

Vale said that while CBP and SAT took about a year to hammer out the details of the new inspection program, it took much longer to get authorization in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.

“Authorization was the difficult part. Right now, our entire focus is on commercial traffic. We don’t have the population to see the increases in pedestrian traffic like you have in Reynosa, Laredo or Matamoros. But, our commercial traffic is growing and will continue to grow. We expect to expand this bridge to at least six lanes in the next three years and then we have authority to go up to 14 lanes. We have two lanes at the moment,” Vale said.

“We are going to put a bridge on the upstream side first to handle the commercial. And then we will put one on the downstream side and use the one in the middle for cars and pickups. Car and pickup truck traffic is a pretty fixed number, until the Mexican government opens up direct access to the toll road through here. People either have to take a left or a right and go down to get to the toll road some other way, which is the preferred way to travel.”

Asked how long before the new bridges are built, Vale said: “Three to five years. We already have authorization. We just have to do the environmental study. The demand is there.”

Rose Benavidez, executive director of Starr County Industrial Foundation, said having a unified cargo processing system at the Starr Camargo International Bridge will help her efforts to bring new business to the county.

“The work we do is strategic and targeted to industries and areas where we know we can do some cool things that will make a difference to our community. We are thrilled to be the first port of entry in the Valley to do this but more importantly, what we hope we are doing is setting a type of process that can be replicated because we are still waiting for a much larger influx of trade to come in through all our ports,” Benavidez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“I think this signals that Rio Grande City and Starr County are definitely open for international business but more importantly that we are going to be a model to follow. Because we are a smaller port they (CBP and SAT) can perfect this unified cargo process, so it can be replicated across the rest of the ports.”

Dalinda Guillen, director of Rio Grande City Economic Development Corporation, echoed Benavidez’s remarks.

“I am very impressed at how forward-thinking this group has been in getting this pilot project together. It shows the value of collaboration between two countries and two ports. It is an historic day not only for our two small communities, Rio Grande and Camargo, but also for the entire region,” Guillen told the Rio Grande Guardian.

In his remarks at the inauguration ceremony, Congressman Cuellar said praise should go to David P. Higgerson, director of operations for CBP in the Laredo Field Office, and Skinner, for bringing “a new thinking” to the federal agency. He also praised SAT, the private sector, Vale and Benavidez.

“Today we are here to celebrate the official implementation of the Inbound Unified Cargo Processing at the Rio Grande City port of entry. The key word is unified because this program reflects both the United States and Mexico’s unified commitment in facilitating cross-border commerce,” Cuellar told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Every day, billions of dollars in commerce pass across our southern border with Mexico. Trade is vital to the economy of communities in the Rio Grande Valley and all of Texas, which is why it is so important to find ways to increase the efficiency and amount of trade processed at our ports of entry.”

Cuellar said the Rio Grande City port of entry is only the second of its type along the Texas-Mexico border to have unified cargo processing. He said the first was at the World Trade Bridge in Laredo. Cuellar said that in 2016, nearly 36,000 cargo trucks moved northbound from Mexico through the Rio Grande City port of entry, generating over $300 million in total world trade.

CBP Perspective

Here are the remarks of Brad Skinner, assistant director of operations for CBP in the Laredo Field Office:

On behalf of Laredo Field Office Director David Higgerson and all of my colleagues in the CBP, we thank you all for being here this morning on this important occasion to inaugurate this pilot unified cargo processing operation in Rio Grande City. This project is the culmination of several months of planning and collaboration by both customs services and recognizes that Mexico and the United States are deeply interconnected in trade and their supply chains. Billions of dollars of trade flow between both countries each and every year and it is imperative to both countries and their economies that we do this right because we all know that time is money and we need to keep the trade flowing. A recent presentation by Texas A&M International stated that about $550 billion in trade going back and forth across the U.S.-Mexican border each and every day. About half of that crossing through our South Texas ports. Rio Grande City is a really important part of that pipeline, that network of ports, for the flow of goods. We know that the automotive manufacturing sector is growing here in the area, agricultural imports, especially in the Lower Rio Grande Valley ports, are increasing dramatically, as a result of Mexico highway infrastructure investments that are moving the fresh produce through the South Texas ports of entry and getting it into the Mid-West and the northern parts of the United States that much more quickly. Here at Starr Camargo Bridge, agricultural commodities are the dominant imported goods, followed by ceramic stone, brick and cement commodities. Exports continue to grow as well. About 85 percent of your export commodities include oil field equipment, such as pipes, tubes, and chemicals in support of the petroleum industry.

This unified cargo pilot is a big step forward in the evolution of cargo processing along the southern border. Both CBP and SAT receive advanced electronic information from the trade about the shipment and this information is used to risk-assess the shipments to ensure that the goods are admissible for entry into both countries. We will assess the information and will be making determinations as to whether the goods can be released. Here at Mexico City, Mexican customs will work side by side with CBP officers to jointly inspect shipments in-bound to the United States as well as shipments of cargo destined to Mexico. In fact, Rio Grande City will be the first South Texas port where this bi-directional joint inspection will be occurring and one of only a very small few across the U.S.-Mexico border. The limited cargo footprint on the Mexican side has presented an ideal opportunity to pilot this model here in order to move trucks more efficiently across the border and I am sure it will be embraced by trade community. CBP envisions that this pilot will have numerous benefits for CBP, for SAT. It will reduce processing time as officials will only have to conduct one joint exam on the U.S. side of the border. Inspect once, release twice. It also allows for real time communication, information sharing between both countries and as Port Director Gonzalez mentioned this really supports what we are trying to do with our national security, and to keep the cargo moving across the border, as well as facilitating legitimate cross-border commerce.

For the U.S. trade community, this means less redundancy of inspections. For the city of Rio Grande, I think it will allow for a more efficient flow of international traffic across the bridge and I am sure it will be attractive to shippers as they are exploring their logistics operations here in South Texas. This program, I am sure, will aid in the reduction of wait times and create more efficient inspections that will lower the cost of doing business for the trade community. This initiative fits with much of our strategic planning for South Texas, for our ports of entry, to really maximize the use of technology and innovation-thinking, innovative ways of doing business, to move product across the border.

This project was a huge team effort, requiring many months of coordination and collaboration. I want to especially recognize Port Director Gonzalez for having the vision, the drive, the commitment to bring this project to fruition. We have worked for more than a year to make it a reality so kudos to both governments and all of the leaders here for making it happen. Win-win is an often-used cliché at an event such as this, but I cannot think of a better way to really highlight this program. It is a win for CBP, our colleagues from Mexican customs, for the trade community and the city of Rio Grande. So, with that said I want to congratulate all those involved in this project – for your innovation, your creative thinking. I am very honored, and I know Mr. Higgerson wished he could be here today. We really applaud all of the forward-thinking that went into this project. Thank you very much, everyone, for your time and attention.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on unified cargo processing at the Rio Grande City port of entry. Part Two will be published later this week.