As construction wraps up on Mexican Federal Highway 40, a super highway that will soon connect the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico at the Port of Brownsville, Texas, local officials in South Texas are scrambling to prepare for up to a half-million additional large trucks in the years ahead loaded with cargo from Mexico's Sinaloa agricultural region—the “breadbasket” of Mexico.
The impact of that new “super land route” that originates in Mazatlan, Mexico, and crosses the mountains before rushing downhill to the Texas border is already being compared to the Panama Canal. Once opened—on or about Oct. 17—Mexican 18-wheel freight haulers can leave the Pacific coast and arrive at the Gulf of Mexico port in less than 12 hours of driving time. That is almost half the time required before the highway was built.
The highway was not scheduled for completion until next spring but commercial trucks have already started using the route and Mexican transportation officials say more will follow as the last improvements are made at interchanges around a few major Mexican cities.
Officials in Mexico and Texas are applauding the aggressive highway project, pointing out that trucks servicing the rich agricultural district of Mexico will soon have a shorter and more direct route to Pharr/Brownsville than they do to the Arizona border, where border crossing facilities are already overcrowded.
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South Texans have been gearing up for the influx of added Mexican commerce for several years, mostly along the Lower Rio Grande Valley corridor from McAllen to Brownsville. While the McAllen area has increased cold storage and traditional storage significantly over the last five years, the Lower Valley, specifically Brownsville, has been slower to respond, a measure Cameron County and Brownsville leaders say is quickly changing.
At a special meeting of the Brownsville/Cameron County Produce Committee earlier this month, County Commissioner Ernie Fernandez said the community is not ready for the major influx of freightliners expected in the weeks ahead.
"We're not ready...not even close to being ready," he told the committee.
Mass meetings address local challenges
But at other local meetings called to talk about the project, state, county, city, and Port of Brownsville officials met with trucking companies and Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) representatives to hash out details on how the region can manage the increase in international commerce.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials say recent additions, including more lanes for truck inspections, will help reduce long wait times experienced at the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Brownsville in recent years, and DPS officials are looking into inquiries of why more Mexican trucks are stopped for vehicle inspection and cited in and around Brownsville than are at other nearby international border crossings.
"We have a lot preparation work yet to do," Fernandez warned officials and importers.
Both city and county officials have expressed urgency in getting the trade ball rolling in the Lower Valley. The city and county split truck-crossing revenues and stand to gain significant funds if the Veterans Crossing can be “whipped into shape” as an entry land port.
Tito Lopez, President of Jonick-Lopez International Transport and Chairman of the Port of Brownsville, says improvements at the crossing are required. In spite of his company being physically located near the Veterans International Bridge, most of Jonick-Lopez trucks use the Pharr crossing because the wait times are shorter.
"You get tired of down time," Lopez told members of the city/county produce board. "The bridge operations in Pharr seem to be better streamlined and more efficient than at Veterans Bridge...and changes need to take place to make the (Brownsville) crossing a faster, more efficient process."
USDA estimates confirm that since the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) was adopted between Mexico and the United States, elevated commerce and traffic has risen significantly. In Texas land ports of entry alone the number of commercial crossings has doubled in just the last 8 to 10 years. In Laredo, for example, land crossing by commercial trucks increased by more than one million vehicles since 1995. In Pharr, statistics indicate more than 300,000 additional trucks have crossed during the same period.
In anticipation of increased wait times at the bridge, local Valley officials say they are hoping to purchase land soon for construction of a staging area adjacent to the Veterans Memorial Bridge crossing.
Port of Brownsville officials, hoping to move much of the Mexican cargo by ship from Brownsville to other ports up the Gulf coast and to destinations on the Eastern Seaboard, are also looking at increasing cold storage capacity at the port facility. Local officials are saying Mexican companies have expressed an interest in developing shipping infrastructure on this side of the border and meetings are being staged to consider the best way to move forward on joint projects.