MISSION, RGV – Superintendent Rigo Villarreal has pointed out that the push for public-private partnerships to boost infrastructure projects at border ports of entry originated in McAllen-Mission.

Villarreal, superintendent of the McAllen-Hidalgo and Anzalduas International Bridges, called the Guardian on Friday to express his delight that Congress has passed an omnibus budget agreement that authorizes U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to initiate public-private partnerships for infrastructure improvements at ports of entry along the Texas-Mexico border. The bill also funds an additional 2,000 Customs and Border Protection officers.

Rigo Villarreal, superintendent of the McAllen-Hidalgo and Anzalduas International Bridges.
Rigo Villarreal, superintendent of the McAllen-Hidalgo and Anzalduas International Bridges.

“We are very pleased Congress is allowing us to move forward with our projects,” Villarreal said. The language on public-private partnerships at border ports of entry was inserted by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and Henry Cuellar, R-Laredo.

“All of this started in McAllen and Mission, if you remember,” said a delighted Villarreal. “Mayor Salinas and I had gone to Austin to request state funds and Senator Hinojosa helped get us the funds for Anzalduas. But, we could not use the funds. There was no mechanism in place for us to donate money to CPB for infrastructure projects.”

At the request of Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas and Villarreal, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, secured $7 million from TxDOT for Anzalduas International Bridge. The plan was to build two new northbound lanes and a facility to inspect southbound “empties,” once such trucks are permitted to travel into Mexico from Anzalduas in 2015.

The $7 million remained untouched because Customs and Border Protection said it was not allowed to partner with state governments or private entities. CPB’s stance infuriated Mayor Salinas. He famously lashed out at the agency, Cornyn and Cuellar at a public event at the Anzalduas Bridge in November, 2011. Guardian reporter Joey Gomez reported from the scene.

“I’m not supposed to be saying this because they don’t agree with me on talking bad about CBP, but they just need to get their priorities in place because it’s not fair to our chamber people who work so hard in trying to promote our city,” Salinas said, at the news conference on Nov. 10, 2011.

“We are not asking for much. We just want them (the federal government) to let us do what we are supposed to do. This land was donated by Mr. Hunt, to the City of Mission and the City of McAllen. We gave it to the federal government. They haven’t spent a penny on property. We have been very good to them. I want them to return the favor by letting us build those lanes that we need so we can make it easy for those from Mexico,” Salinas said, at the Nov. 2011 news conference.

In his interview with the Guardian on Friday, Villarreal acknowledged the effort to get CPB to allow public-private partnerships was hard work. “We called Congressman Cuellar and Senator Cornyn and they started to help. But, we could not get it passed. Then we got Congressman Vela involved and Congressman Carter involved. They visited the bridge, just like Congressman Cuellar and Senator Cornyn and we just started hitting it, hitting it, hitting it. We would not take no for an answer. We finally got it done. Senator Cornyn inserted it into the Senate version of an omnibus bill and it passed this morning. We are very happy,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal added that an environmental assessment is currently underway for the projects that the cities of McAllen, Mission, and Granjeno have for Anzaldaus International Bridge. He said this should be finished in the next two weeks.

“We are right on track. We still need to ask for approval from CPB and we still need to start on Jan. 1. But, with this legislation there is no doubt we will be able to use our $7 million for infrastructure projects. We are in a good place. We are very happy our federal legislators heard us and helped us. We are pleased they did not give up,” Villarreal said.

In a news release, Congressman Cuellar pointed out that millions of dollars in commerce cross the southern border every day. In 2012, trade between the United States and Mexico totaled over $470 billion, roughly the equivalent of $1.3 billion a day or $1 million a minute, the Laredo congressman explained. The City of Laredo, the largest inland port in the country, accounts for 45 percent of all trade with Mexico. Cuellar believes that while this growth has created major economic benefits, it has also left CBP stretching resources to ensure its mission is accomplished.

Cuellar thanked Congressman Carter, chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, for offering legislation to permit CBP to enter into agreements with private industry to help grow travel and trade at U.S. ports-of-entry.

“Delays at the border cause the U.S. economy to lose billions of dollars in trade and commerce,” said Congressman Cuellar. “Public-private partnerships provide an opportunity for state and local governments and business to step in where the federal government falls short. The passage of this initiative will allow the private sector to invest in infrastructure improvements at our ports of entry will be a win for border communities and the entire state of Texas. I thank Chairman Carter for his leadership on this issue and his willing to work with me and congratulate the ports that will benefit.”

Carter visited Anzalduas International Bridge with Cuellar in August of last year. He said at the time he was a big supporter of public-private partnerships and he reiterated this in a news release this week. “Allowing Private-Public partnerships will help us secure our country while building a stronger economy and creating jobs inside and outside the United States. Through this initiative, we can grow our economies while encouraging trade in a safe and responsible manner,” Carter said.

The Border Trade Alliance said the omnibus budget agreement will allow border communities to “dramatically improve” infrastructure and staffing levels at their ports of entry. BTA said the new authority expands on language adopted by Congress last year that allowed for five pilot projects between local partners and Customs and Border Protection to improve staffing levels. The group said the City of El Paso and a consortium in South Texas, who are involved in two of those pilot programs, signed reimbursable fee agreements with CBP last month.

“We applaud Chairman Carter, Rep. Cuellar and Sen. Cornyn for working in a bipartisan way to seek an innovative solution to the border’s infrastructure challenges,” BTA Chair Jesse Hereford said. “In the light of constrained federal budgets, we appreciate their willingness to work with border trade stakeholders to find new ways to fund staffing and port improvements.”