McALLEN, RGV – When it comes to federal assistance for funding new infrastructure at the Rio Grande Valley’s International Ports of Entry, bridge operators say they won’t hold their breath.

Those charged with manning the region’s gateways to and from Mexico were mostly grim in their outlook for help from the government and emphasized significant barriers to POEs.

The challenges for Ports of Entry on the border amount to processes that do not meet demand, which relegates bridge staff to using outdated technology with minimal funding for manpower and infrastructure, according to Rigo Villarreal, superintendent for McAllen-Hidalgo and Anzalduas International Bridges.

“Where we see the federal government not improving is through their budgetary constraints. We don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel as far as new money for infrastructure,” Villarreal said. “We are going to just have to come up with creative ideas like we are now to help fund that. The only way are going to be able to fund it is through private industry, through pilot programs in the form of tolls to help pay for some of this infrastructure.”

Villarreal addressed attendees at the Border Economic Development Entrepreneurship Symposium at the McAllen Country Club on Nov. 10. The event was coordinated by the Department of Economics and Finance at UTRGV in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

In his speech entitled “Texas Border Land Ports of Entry: Infrastructure Challenges and Needs”, Villarreal addressed the most pressing issues facing Ports of Entry on the border, which are forcing operators on the bridges to be creative when it comes to funding and staffing, he said.

“I think the major points were that infrastructure and staffing is a major challenge for us at the bridges so we have become very creative.” Villarreal said when asked to summarize his presentation. “Both bridge boards have been very supportive by allowing me to use my judgment and trying to get funding. They have been instrumental in helping me get funding from the state legislature, through CBI funding to help pay for infrastructure.

“They have also allowed us to pay for some of the overtime,” he said. “When we have had expected long border wait times, they have allowed us to put in budget amendments to help us pay for that through bridge tolls. Those are the major challenges we face.”

The funding for a southbound commercial lane in Mexico at Anzalduas is the most recent example of bridges taking initiative to address infrastructure needs by leveraging private sector funds. The City of McAllen, which owns a majority stake at Anzalduas (44 percent) recently broke ground on an eight-foot wide lane and booth that will allow for the inspection of commercial southbound traffic at a cost of about $900,000.

Through the South Texas Assets Consortium, Villarreal says bridges have the mechanism to pay overtime for Customs agents using bridge revenues.

Operators on the bridge have been saving 25 cents out of passenger tolls for the last three and a half years to be able to have the money for infrastructure equipment instead of having to borrow from the city or anybody else, Villarreal said.

“We used to ask the McAllen Chamber or EDCs to help us with some money, now the bridge board has allowed to put in a budgetary amount in our budget to help pay for overtime at certain times of the year,” Villarreal said. “We expect to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per bridge on Black Friday. That gets us between four and 6 additional staff and maybe a canine.”

When it comes to addressing their needs, bridges in McAllen and Mission are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The McAllen-Hidalgo POE has 12 lanes but usually only five or seven of those lanes are open because of staff shortages.

Anzalduas may have adequate staffing, but currently operates with only four lanes despite the bridge’s popularity. Those crossing the bridge from Mexico like the bridge because it’s closer to Monterrey and Coahuila, Villarreal said.

“With this last budget cycle, the bridge board has allowed me to put a budget amendment where we are going to set aside some money from each bridge to help pay for overtime because it was a big burden on the chamber, EDCs and other entities,” Villarreal said.

“I believe the federal government is going to slowly start shifting that responsibility to municipalities or the private sector, but we don’t have options at this point,” he said. “If we see the light at the end of the tunnel maybe we could slow that process down, but right now we are trying to increase it to have the people use our bridge.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows Rigo Villarreal, superintendent of bridges for the City of McAllen, speaking at the Border Economic Development Entrepreneurship Symposium. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)