by Jerry Pacheco
A couple of years ago, I was invited, along with a handful of people, to a private meeting with then-Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Alan Bersin. He was seeking input from stakeholders pertaining to the major issues on the U.S.-Mexico border as concerning cross-border commerce. The recurring feedback that he received from almost every participant was that in order to keep up with the growth of commerce between the U.S. and Mexico, additional expenditures on improving border infrastructure were desperately needed. The border is the portal of commerce between the nations, and in order for North America to retain its competitiveness, infrastructure was needed to facilitate commerce.
Bersin’s response was that public-private partnerships were needed as an option to build port infrastructure and to help defray the costs of staffing and maintaining ports of entry. He emphasized that given the state of the U.S. economy, it was unrealistic to think that Washington, D.C. was going to be able to keep up with the infrastructure demands on the border and that the public and private sectors would need to work together to come up with financial solutions.
I accepted Bersin’s response, given the shaky U.S. economy at that time. However, soon afterwards, two developments occurred that seemed to refute Bersin’s point of view. First was the attempt by then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to set aside a couple of million dollars to pay for CBP staffing costs to allow the Santa Teresa Port of Entry to stay open an additional two hours in the evening to accommodate increased commercial traffic. Soon afterwards, the El Paso City Council started discussing dedicating funding to CBP to hire more personnel to cross vehicles more rapidly at the international bridges in El Paso. In both cases, officials were disappointed to find out that CBP could not accept supplemental funds for its operations, no mechanism existed to do so, and statutes would be violated. The public-private partnerships proposed by Bersin seemed to be moot.
Given this history, I was very delighted when Senator John Cornyn of Texas recently introduced legislation called the ”Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013” in the U.S. Senate. This bill would allow local public and private organizations to team with the federal government to jointly work on and finance public infrastructure on the border. In this case, a border city or local port authority could work with the General Services Administration and CBP of the federal government to create ways to finance extra lanes at ports of entry, and expand port facilities.
The bill also would allow the federal government to enter into agreements for the provision of certain services at border ports of entry. This means that if more personnel or services are needed at a port of entry, a local government or private organization can solicit these from CBP and pay the federal government the cost of the salaries and services.
The bill also allows local organizations to keep up with infrastructure and services demand in their region which the federal government cannot adequately address due to budget constraints. In other words, if a state or local government or private organization is experiencing tremendous development that is being threatened by bottlenecks at a port of entry, due to lack of services or infrastructure, a method would exist whereby the federal government could receive infrastructure or operational funding to address local needs.
If passed, this bill could lead to a whole new approach in terms of border development. Rather than begging Washington, D.C. for funding and waiting several years until the request can be addressed, organizations can raise local funding and approach federal officials with a solution that can be more rapidly addressed. It’s a win-win situation in that the federal government taps into local funding sources and the public or private organizations have more control in developing solutions for port infrastructure and staffing needs. Passing the bill puts the onus squarely onto the shoulders of the federal government and local partners in terms of working together to solve these issues.
If passed in its proposed form, the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act of 2013 could be one of the most important pieces of legislation to deal with border development in a long time.