Proposed trust fund to improve federal land ports gaining support

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USMCA to boost border trade, prompting need for funds, advocates say

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas congressman has proposed starting a federally funded trust to help border communities upgrade and fix existing land ports, and it’s an idea that is going over well with bridge owners and municipalities in South Texas.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report on Thursday that he’s working with congressional leaders to gain bipartisan support for legislation that would seed a trust fund with federal money to be used for maintenance and expansion of land ports, such as the many international bridges between Texas and Mexico.

The idea is fashioned after longstanding federal legislation that provides for a Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is money that the nation’s harbor ports can access to use for expansion and repairs.

A Democratic $760 billion transportation bill currently in the House — which includes funds for roads, bridges, water, rail and internet improvements — also has within it $19.7 billion over five years proposed for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

“Sea ports have a Harbor Maintenance Trust account and they handle less than 20 percent of all trade and people coming into the United States. The land ports handle over 80 percent of all cargo and all the people coming in but there is no dedicated trust fund for the ports of entry, that’s why we’re over $5 billion short on land ports,” Cuellar said via phone from Washington.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

He stressed that such a trust fund would be seeded with federal money, not by raising taxes, and a portion of the tax revenue generated by port users could be applied to the fund to maintain a healthy balance.

“There is money there and if the Valley area or the Laredo area or the El Paso area or Brownsville area … are passing cargo through those ports, then why is it we are passing all of our revenues to Washington, D.C.? I think some of that should stay there to improve the land ports and accommodate trade and tourism for the border,” Cuellar said.

Advocates say that with Canada’s Parliament soon expected to sign the USMCA trade deal — the free trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, which President Trump signed on Jan. 29 — maintenance and expansion of land ports, especially for cargo vehicles, is more necessary than ever.

Support from bridge port leaders

Sam Vale, a majority shareholder in the private Rio Grande City-Camargo International Bridge, said he supports the idea because government requirements to date on technology and infrastructure expectations are costly and require constant updating of equipment.

Vale is past chairman of the Border Trade Alliance, a nonprofit organization that has members from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

“It would be used for everything at the port of entry from facilities to infrastructure; that’s very important,” Vale said standing at the base of his bridge on Thursday afternoon. The bridge has about 3,000 vehicles pass through daily between Rio Grande City and Mexico’s Ciudad Camargo.

“Right here in the Valley, we have numerous very worthy projects that are owned by municipalities or other entities, political subdivisions, counties, and it’s one of these situations where they just can’t turn around and write a check. They don’t have a million-dollar fund that they can go into for these types of activities,” Vale said.

Sam Vale is majority shareholder of the Rio Grande City – Camargo International Bridge and a member of the Border Trade Alliance and TXDOT’s Border Trade Advisory Committee. He is seen at the bridge on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling also is a member of the Alliance and said he knows how tough it is to appropriate money for costly ports-of-entry projects. His city has been trying for several years to expand to include commercial lanes for trucks on the Anzalduas International Bridge, which connects McAllen to Reynosa, Mexico. The project will cost an estimated $57 million, he said.

Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen, Texas, is seen in his office on Aug. 2, 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Anytime that you can get some federal money — and keep in mind the federal government makes a lot of money off Customs, billions of dollars — and any time we can get help from them that would be fantastic,” Darling said.

Darling is past vice president of the Alliance, and also serves with Vale on the Border Trade Advisory Committee, which meets quarterly in Austin and counsels the Texas Department of Transportation on border trade and commerce issues.

A key unanswered question is whether vehicle user fees would pay into such a new land port trust fund and how it would be calculated. The harbor trust fund collects fees from water port users based on vessel valuations. Vale wonders whether 18-wheelers crossing from Mexico would be charged a fee based on their load, or if it would be a per-vehicle set rate.

“I’m supportive of the idea but as always the devil is in the details. We don’t need another fund that doesn’t get spent the way it has been promised,” Vale said.

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