Border trade beset by big-city traffic snarls

Jesus Palao Alvarez climbs out of his 18-wheeler and surveys the traffic at the border. He crosses this bridge daily on his haul from Coahuila, Mexico, to Laredo, Texas. Today's wait wasn't too bad - the snake of trucks is only beginning to curl out of sight.

"But depending on the hour, it can take as long as two or three hours to cross," says Mr. Palao, delivering a load of radios to a Laredo warehouse.

All along the US-Mexico border, truck traffic is the same sluggish affair. Big rigs can back up for miles on either side, paying tolls, getting weighed, and waiting for inspections.

Since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) six years ago, trade between the two countries has exploded. Strong economies on both sides of the border are fueling the boom.

But as manufacturing has outpaced the number of highways and customs booths, border cities are becoming bottlenecks, chasing away tourism and diminishing the quality of life for locals.

Cities and counties are trying to keep up, pumping in millions of their own money and begging Washington and Mexico City for more. But even with all the new blacktop and bridges, the problem intensifies.

"Infrastructure is one of the most serious problems facing the region right now," says James Gerber, a trade expert at San Diego State University.

Nowhere is the chronic congestion worse than in Laredo - the busiest inland port in North America. More than 40 percent of all goods entering the US come through this city.

Officials here are doing the best they can to cope with the onslaught of traffic. They opened the World Trade Bridge over the Rio Grande in April, giving the sister cities four bridges in all. The new bridge is one of two meant to move 2.8 million trucks a year - a figure that's growing by 12 percent annually.

"The city and state are dumping a tremendous amount of money into infrastructure here, but we've been playing catch up since the early 1990s," says Tom Wade, head of the Laredo Transportation Association.

Indeed, traffic was getting so bad that businesses themselves finally stepped in. A group of local landowners invested more than $6 million to build one of the first privately owned toll roads in the US. Camino Colombia, as it's called, bypasses the streets of Laredo and heads north to Interstate 35. It opened last month.

"There is no way you can compare Laredo to any other location on the border," says Carlos Benavides III, president of Camino Colombia Inc. "Eighty-five percent of the people who come to this city every day don't stay. They don't shop here. They don't sleep here. They come here to move freight."

Laredo has turned into Los Angeles without the Bentleys. Though a modest-size city of 200,000, its roadways are clogged with pickups and Peterbilts. Before the World Trade Bridge, trucks were allowed to head straight down Interstate 35 into downtown Laredo. The right lane was used for truck traffic, which would often stretch for five miles. "We had big, big problems in and out of downtown," says Mr. Wade. "Merchants were screaming at us."

The trade bridge has eased congestion considerably. Laredo is also installing the first automated toll-collection system on the border for trucks.

The traffic tieups at the big border crossings - Laredo, El Paso, San Diego - are forcing haulers to try less-traveled routes. The result: smaller border towns such as Eagle Pass and McAllan in Texas and Tecate in California are now facing delays as well.

Trade advocates say part of the blame for all this lies with the federal government. Under the initial NAFTA agreement, trucks were supposed be allowed to move freely between the US, Mexico, and Canada. President Clinton has refused to enact that provision, in part because of Teamsters Union concerns about the safety of Mexican trucks.

As it stands now, Mexican trucks are allowed to drive into the US and drop their goods in a warehouse before heading back. US truckers then pick up the freight at the sites and drive north, which can produce twice the work - and twice the traffic.

Adding to the bottlenecks is the lack of federal agents - Customs, Food and Drug Administration, Immigration and Naturalization Service - to inspect vehicles. Moreover, border checks take time. "It's all that paperwork and inspection on the US side that takes so long," says trucker Reynaldo Garza Salinas of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Historically, analysts say, the US has seen the Mexican border as a law-enforcement problem first and an economic opportunity second, in part because of concern about drugs. To change perceptions and alleviate congestion, however, will take lots of money, something scarce on both sides of the border. "We need more help from Washington," says Larry Dovalina, Laredo city manager.

Still, even more largess won't keep people from spending time behind the wheel. "There are always going to be lines at the border when we have such a big difference in our economies, compounded by the threat of drugs," says Wade.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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