Report: Border traffic rebounding with gradual reopening of economy

Border Report Tour

Higher activity detected going into Mexico; northbound traffic still sharply lower as U.S. restrictions for international travelers remain in place

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Southbound international bridge traffic at city-owned facilities is beginning to pick up after dropping as much as 82 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. El Paso city staff attribute the improvement to the gradual reopening of the economy.

The biggest increase since March 1 involves passenger vehicles going into Mexico. After dropping by 69 percent at the end of March, traffic is now only down 31 percent from its March lows, according to the city’s International Bridges Department.

Southbound pedestrian traffic at the Stanton, Paso del Norte and Zaragoza bridges was down 82 percent as of April 12, but has since rebounded 12 percent. Cargo trucks going into Mexico at Zaragoza dropped 42 percent by the end of April, as U.S.-run factories in Juarez, Mexico suspended operations or non-essential production lines, but as of May 24 is only down 29 percent there, compared to March 1.

“Cross-border travel restrictions have had a negative impact on international bridge traffic,” states an International Bridges Department report turned in to City Council on Wednesday. “Personal vehicle and pedestrian crossings are slightly rebounding as the El Paso economy gradually opens.”

Graphic courtesy City of El Paso

On Wednesday, Border Report documented lines of vehicles four-blocks long at the Stanton Street bridge waiting to pay a toll to cross into Juarez.

The city owns three of El Paso’s four international crossings with Mexico and collects southbound tolls at them. The fourth facility, the Bridge of the Americas, is federally owned and the city doesn’t measure traffic volumes there. (The Bridge of the Americas is a toll-free border crossing.) City officials said earlier they were expecting to lose millions of dollars in tolls at its border crossings due to stay-at-home orders in both El Paso and Juarez and to international travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government in mid-March and renewed through June 22.

“There is no question that with travel restrictions crossings have decreased substantially between the two countries and here as well,” International Bridges Department Director David Coronado said.

So much so that the city sees no need right now to subsidize CBP inspectors overtime hours to keep additional northbound passenger lanes open. But with more maquiladoras getting ready to reopen on June 1, the city is on a wait-and-see mode regarding stopping the subsidy, known as the 3P program, on cargo lanes into the United States.

Coronado said the declines appear to have “bottomed out,” though a return to 2018 levels could take a long time.

But while activity going from El Paso to Mexico begins to pick up, northbound border crossings remain sharply lower.

Department of Transportation data shows a sharp drop in activity as El Paso ports of entry. (DOT graphic)

A detailed, up-to-date number of northbound crossings wasn’t immediately available. Department of Transportation data obtained through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website only includes totals for January, February and March.

A CBP source on Wednesday told Border Report that crossings into the United States remain sharply lower. “Right now what we’re seeing in the commercial area is a decrease of about 50 percent. Normally, we would see between 3,000 to 3,500 trucks a day combined,” the source said. “We normally see 30,000 to 32,000 passenger vehicles a day. Right now we’re seeing a decrease of between 45 to 50 percent. We used to see 20,000 to 23,000 pedestrians a day and right now we have a decrease of 70 to 75 percent.”

Even U.S. citizens who live in Mexico, from retirees to American-born children of Mexican parents, aren’t crossing during the pandemic. Schools were closed in El Paso in much of March and in April and are now either not opening until August or holding classes online. “We’re not seeing the students and that affects our numbers as well. If they don’t need to cross, they’re not crossing,” the CBP source said.

The city’s International Bridges Department has been told by the Mexican Maquiladora Association (Index) that the U.S.-run plants expect to pick up their activity as they need to catch up to unfulfilled orders and as auto plants in the United States resume operations and require the components put together at the maquiladoras.

However, trade and cross-border activity may not get back to normal soon. “The effects of low consumer spending and a slowed industrial production may not be seen in the region until the end of the summer,” according to the report.

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