Trade Congests US-Mexico Border

Mexican and US officials agree that improvements are needed to facilitate free-trade pact

IT'S 6 p.m. - rush hour between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. Through the exhaust-fume mirage, cars and trucks trickle past the United States border inspection booths. It is a delay that can last up to two hours."The three bridges are saturated," says Carlos Ponce Torres, deputy mayor of Juarez. "Traffic is strangling at the border." A colossal jump in trade between Mexico and the US during the past five years is causing massive congestion problems at border crossing points. A North American free-trade agreement will only make matters worse, warn city officials and a US General Accounting Office (GAO) report released June 10.

Border mayors speak out "We must have a commitment within the [free-trade] treaty to improve infrastructure as well as manning the infrastructure," says Saul Ramirez, Jr., mayor of Laredo, Texas. "Without additional personnel to man the infrastructure, free trade will not be a success. It will choke itself on the border." Mr. Ramirez's view echoes the sentiments at a San Diego meeting June 12-14 of mayors of US-Mexico border cities. The conference concluded with a formal request that the free-trade deal address border congestion (including a temporary federal cost-sharing mechanism). The mayors also resolved to reject new maquiladoras in areas with a shortage of housing and public services. There is also a push to form a new "Association of Border Cities" to tackle common problems on an ongoing basis - in addition to an annual conference. The problem is not a dearth of border bridges, says Irwin Rubenstein, a State Department official on a binational committee dealing with the issue. At least a dozen bridges or crossing points are planned or under way. "There have been more bridges built or expanded in the last five years than in the last twenty," he says. The problem is staffing. "We don't have congressional support to staff current US Customs and Immigration crossing points - let alone future points." The San Ysidro checkpoint between Tijuana and San Diego has 24 lanes, but typically only 14 are staffed, Mr. Rubenstein says. And Ramirez says that, although a 100 people are being added to the US Customs office in Laredo, Texas, the immigration staff has not increased in 13 years. At a maquiladora industry conference June 19, Mexican Finance Secretary Pedro Aspe Armella gave the Mexican Customs agency a 100-day ultimatum to revamp and improve border inspection efficiency. Meanwhile, trade between Mexico and the US is flying high. Since Mexico joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1986, tariffs and duties on imports have fallen. As a result, US exports across the Rio Grande River have nearly doubled from $14.6 billion in 1987 to $28 billion in 1990.

Local cash shortfall In just the last year, the number of heavy trucks passing through the Laredo-Neuvo Laredo crossing point has risen almost 40 percent, according to the Texas Center of Border Economic and Enterprise Development. Combined with rail crossings, Ramirez estimates that at least half of all the commerce transiting the border by land passes through his city. Cash-strapped municipalities are seeking funds to repair and improve roads and bridges bearing the brunt of the increased traffic. Laredo city officials say they will need $300 million in infrastructure improvements during the next five years. The GAO report notes the need for road repairs in Mexico is even greater. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas has also asked the GAO to study further what improvements are necessary to prepare for increased cross-border trade. "Free trade is wonderful, but you've got to consider its effects," says Tony Ponce, deputy mayor of El Paso, the fifth poorest city in the US. "Every 10 seconds an 18-wheeler rumbles through my district."

Last in a series. Other articles ran June 27 and 28, and July 1.

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