Trade Pact Overloads Border Infrastructure

Congested highways, bridges, and railroads are straining under the free-trade stampede

TRAFFIC on Country Club Road once was a leisurely flow of Sevilles, Cherokees, and neighborhood kids on bicycles. But now the road is a key shortcut to the United States-Mexico border, and increasingly, residents of the opulent neighborhood on El Paso's west side jostle with truck traffic, some generated by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

''The road was there before there was any dream of commerce,'' says Joseph Wardy, a concerned west-sider who is also president of Herman Miles Trucking. ''Trucks stick out like a sore thumb.''

Transportation officials predicted that NAFTA would overload the border's infrastructure, and it has. With the flow of goods and services up more than 20 percent in each direction, congested highways, bridges, railroads, and airports are straining under the free-trade stampede.

How much money is needed to repair and expand transportation facilities? ''That's one of the hottest questions around,'' says Jack Foster, overseeing a new master plan at the Texas Department of Transportation.

Consultants working for the governor estimate that Texas alone needs to spend $2 billion on highways over the next decade. Several hundred million dollars of that would be needed in the immediate border area, Mr. Foster says.

There, truck traffic has grown to ''massive'' size, Mr. Wardy adds. Though his company operates in 22 cities throughout the United States, he attributes one-half of its growth in business this year to NAFTA.

The Texas consultants also found other substantial NAFTA-related needs: $300 million for bridges and border crossings, $300 million for aviation, $500 million for railroads, and $600 million for transit systems.

Country Club Road, for instance, is the shortest route for truckers to reach I-10 from Santa Teresa, N.M., which has a few industries and is a new port-of-entry point from Mexico. Plans are to reroute traffic to a proposed highway called Artcraft Highway. But of its planned 17 miles, only one mile now exists. ''And that mile is substandard,'' says Ricardo Dominguez, El Paso's transportation-planning coordinator.

''Our most pressing problem is an international bridge,'' says Kathryn Lawrence, director of international marketing and tourism at the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. Only two of El Paso's four bridges carry truck traffic, and one of them is about to reduce service as it undergoes a year of repairs.

One option is to enlarge the bridge at Fabens in eastern El Paso County. The existing bridge ''is about a lane and a half wide,'' Mr. Dominguez says.

But physical capacity is only part of the problem, says Peter Araujo, owner of Abaco Customhouse Brokers. The US Customs Service does not staff the ports of entry adequately. That has created delays, even as NAFTA has boosted his business 10 to 20 percent. ''We're always undermanned,'' Mr. Araujo complains. ''If we had more bridges, it wouldn't help.'' Wardy and Ms. Lawrence agree.

Nonetheless, Washington is reviewing more than a half-dozen proposals to build or expand rail and highway bridges across the Rio Grande, says Steve Gibson, coordinator of US-Mexico border affairs at the State Department. Projects in Brownsville and Laredo have already received a presidential permit.

El Paso officials also want I-25, a north-south route that passes through Denver, to be brought up to interstate quality from Mexico to Canada.

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