BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The Public-Private Partnerships border communities have entered into with Customs and Border Protection to pay for CBP staff overtime and bridge equipment are fine as short-term fixes but they are not the long term answer, says U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela.

The Brownsville Democrat made clear his views at a hearing of the Sub-Committee on Border and Maritime Security, which was held to examine the implementation of P3 programs at ports of entry.

P3s are a means by which CBP can pay for additional officer hours and accept donations of real and personal property such as new inspection booths or computers or scanning equipment thanks to the financial generosity of outside entities, such as private corporations and local municipalities. They were approved as a pilot program under Section 559 of the 2014 Appropriations Act. U.S. Rep. William Hurd, R-San Antonio, and other border lawmakers are trying to make them permanent.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela

“CBP’s Public-Private Partnership program was established to allow for alternative funding sources to meet the growing demand for federal services. This program can be beneficial to providing a short-term solution to a shortage of funding for staffing and infrastructure. However, it is not a long-term solution,” Congressman Vela said.

“CBP operations and infrastructure improvements are government functions that have traditionally been funded by federal appropriations and user fees. Under this model, ports of entry with greater resources could access more CBP services than ports of entry with equal need but fewer resources.”

Vela said he understands the number of applications for reimbursable service agreements and donations proposals submitted by non-federal partners is growing. “This clearly illustrates that there is a strong demand for more CBP officers and modern infrastructure at our ports of entry. But we must ensure that we as a nation continue to fund security and facilitation needs at ports of entry.”

Vela said that as a border congressman he understands and has seen firsthand the importance of maintaining infrastructure and adequate staffing at the nation’s ports of entry. “The Rio Grande Valley is made up of four counties, Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy, with a combined population of 1.3 million people, who share a border with almost two million citizens of Mexico. Within this 99-mile span of Deep South Texas lie 11 international bridges, many of which participate in the South Texas Assets Consortium, which was the brainchild of Mr. Vale and is an organized effort by participating bridge communities to take advantage of the Public-Private Partnerships offered by CBP.”

(Editor’s Note: Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo International Bridge Company and co-founder of the South Texas Assets Consortium, gave testimony at the congressional hearing. We will bring Vale’s testimony, along with that of Cameron County Administrator David Garcia, in our next issue.)

Congressman Vela said ports of entry help drive cross-border commerce and travel in his district and across the region. “The services rendered by Customs and Border Protection officers at our ports of entry impact not only border communities, but also the nation’s economy as a whole. According to CBPs data, on a typical day in fiscal year 2014, officers processed over one million passengers and pedestrians at air, land and sea ports of entry, as well as inspected over 70,000 truck, rail and maritime containers. Those numbers represent billions of dollars a day in trade and travel that drives the growth of our local, state and national economies,” Vela said.

But, while these ports of entry drive economic activity they are aging, Vela argued.

“Their infrastructure often cannot accommodate the volume of trucks and vehicles and pedestrians that cross on a daily basis, contributing to increased wait times. Also, many of these facilities cannot be retrofitted to accommodate post-9/11 security technology. CBP previously estimated it would need six billion dollars over ten years to modernize existing ports of entry to meet its current operational requirements, but funding has fallen far short of this need. Staffing shortages also continue to be a problem as CBP remains thousands of officers short of the number necessary to staff our ports of entry properly. This shortage also contributes to growing wait times, costing the U.S. economy and the American consumer billions of dollars.”

Vela concluded his remarks by reiterating his point about P3s. “I understand the appeal of these programs given current resource limitations, but maintain that Congress has a responsibility to provide CBP the resources to fulfill its mission.”

‘Modernization of Ports of Entry have been significantly underfunded’

The Sub-Committee on Border and Maritime Security hearing is chaired by U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, who represents Michigan’s 10th Congressional District. Miller’s district includes the Blue Water Bridge, a twin-span international bridge across the St. Clair River that links Port Huron, Michigan, United States, and Point Edward, Ontario, Canada.

In her remarks, Miller stressed the importance of international trade, noted that ports of entry are underfunded and praised the P3 concept.

“The commerce that moves through the nation’s ports of entry, also known as POEs, powers our economy, drives job creation and is fundamental to our way of life. If POEs shut down or traffic is backed up, millions of dollars can be lost, economic growth comes to a halt, travelers find other destinations to visit and would-be customs revenue destined for the U.S. Treasury goes away,” Miller said.

“Despite the importance of POEs to the nation’s economic health, modernization efforts have been significantly underfunded. CBP staffing has not kept pace with growing demand. While CBP is frequently asked to provide new or additional services at POEs across the country, it’s often unable to accommodate these requests due to staffing shortages or other revenue constraints.”

Miller said that over the past few years, Congress has appropriated more than $2 billion for POE construction. “But, that is dwarfed by what we estimate we actually need which is a four to six billion dollars to really modernize our POEs. Air passenger volumes are growing at a rate of four to five percent a year. The nation has experienced a 24 percent increase in cargo containers since the Great Recession. And more cars and trucks transit the land POEs than ever before. We are falling further behind every year to match the demands placed on our CBP officers and infrastructure.”

Miller pointed out that in 2014, Congress appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for an additional 2,000 CBP officers nationwide. “However, according to CBPs workflow staffing model, the current need is more than 2,500 additional officers with projections to grow even further as travel volume increases. In today’s current budget environment, CBP and GSA are very hard pressed to find the billions of dollars needed to fix our failing infrastructure and to fund additional officers so we need to be creative.”

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller

Miller said that from everything that her committee has heard thus far, P3s are working well. She said that while travel volumes at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport have increased, average wait times have dropped by 45 percent, thanks to a P3 program. “So, great news there. In addition three localities in Texas are poised to take advantage of donation authority at land POEs to provide CBP with additional booths, new scanning equipment, as well as renovations to an agricultural lab.”

Miller said that under Congressman Hurd’s proposal to permanently authorize CBP’ P3 program, donation authority is limited and is not designed to pay for an entire POE or significant expansion. “Congressional appropriations alone are appropriate for such large scale projects of national importance.”

Mille also said that as the nation’s economic and security requirements grow, “POEs must be able to accommodate more trucks, more passengers; more cargo while at the same time providing convenient and secure travel for the people who cross the border each and every day. This is why I fully support concepts like P3s and other innovative ways to fund infrastructure improvements.”

Miller said Congressman Hurd’s authorization language “makes sure CBP can leverage this important tool well into the future, and with the second busiest border port of entry along the northern tier, the Blue Water Bridge in my district, as well as the busiest border POE across the northern tier, the northern border, which is the Ambassador Bridge which is about an hour to the south of my district, I am very interested in the application of P3s to meet the infrastructure and staffing challenges close to home, on both the northern and the southern border”

Miller concluded her remarks by saying there is a “dire need” to modernize ports of entry. “We certainly need to tap into the expertise and willingness of the private sector, and to partner with them to come up with better and more cost effective approaches for the new port of entry construction modernization and staffing needs of the future,” Miller said.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows the Blue Water Bridge, a twin-span international bridge across the St. Clair River that links Port Huron, Michigan, United States, and Point Edward, Ontario, Canada. It is in the district of U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, chair of the U.S. House Sub-Committee on Border and Maritime Security.

Editor’s Note: Senior Reporter Joey Gomez assisted with this story.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first in a two-part series on a hearing of the U.S. House Sub-Committee on Border and Maritime Security that focused on Public-Private Partnerships with Customs and Border Protection.