By Juan Montoya
Many years ago, then-congressman Solomon Ortiz and an entourage of local officials would chronically go to some far off spot on Highway 77, unveil a new US Interstate 69 sign and proclaim that prosperity in the form of NAFTA trade was just down the road.
Well, we've changed congressmen since, but in what seems like an annual pilgrimage to some distant part of the valley to unveil I-69 signs continue.
Now the Port of Brownsville has added a new international twist to the annual ritual. They are now crowing up the near completion of Mexican Federal Highway 40, the superhighway that will connect the Pacific Ocean in Mazatlan to the Gulf Coast once finished. The crown jewel of the new highway was the Puente Baluarte built at a cost of $146 million that links sections of Mexico's federal Highway 40 and is expected to significantly cut travel time between the coastal resort city of Mazatlan and the inland city of Durango. From Durango, the superhighway will link the lucrative trade, local boosters say, with Texas and the rest of the U.S.
Ask any port commissioner about it. Better yet, ask Cameron County Judge candidate Martin Arambula and he'll tell you that once that link between the port, the new Mexican highway and I-69 is complete, bounties await. And let's not forget the widening of the Panama Canal and the tremendous impact it will have on the Port of Brownsville.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Ernie Hernandez, also running for reelection, has now gotten into the superhighway-Asia-Gulf Coast hype by stating at a meeting of the curiously named Brownsville/Cameron County Produce Committee that the county was nowhere ready for the torrent of commerce that is lined up in China just waiting for the new signs to herald the arrival of nirvana.
Last week at the coming out announcement for Cameron District Clerk candidate Rosie Sotelo, Hernandez took a writer aside and gave him the scoop.
"You know that presidential permit the port got for their rail and truck bridge?," he asked. "Well, I went over there and they are going to transfer it to the county. That's all it took. You want a positive story. It just took me to go over there and ask and they agreed. Ask Cris Valadez about it."
The folks at the county like Hernandez and Valadez (who has spoken often of cornering the Mexican produce market and steering it to the port away from Pharr) are in a tizzy because truckers hauling Mexican products are avoiding Los Tomates (Veterans Memorial) Bridge and opting to go to Pharr. They cite the virtual dragnet that the Department of Public Safety (los zorrillos) has established there as one of the main reasons that truckers avoid that crossing. In the past, they say that the DPS has refused their entreaties to lay off the Mexican trucks with little avail.
"The DPS uses Los Tomates to train its rookies," said a county employee. "It got to the point that the commissioners were thinking of installing a justice of the peace office there to take care of the tickets and not having to go downtown to the courthouse."
County Administrator Pete Sepulveda, when he's not building new causeways or new international bridges, said that commercial crossings account for 35 to 40 percent of the county’s road and bridge fund revenues. That's about $4 million a year. He told the local daily that if the county could attract an additional 250 trucks per day that would equate to a revenue increase of about 25 percent for both the city and county, since they split the take. He said that the county arranged for meetings with local and regional officers of the DPS to discuss issues involving the scrutiny for truck inspections, citing statistics that showed that while fewer trucks cross in Brownsville, truckers crossing into Cameron County account for a disproportional amount of violations.
An Open Records Act request for traffic citations and fines at Los Tomates issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety troopers in 2011 yielded some eye-opening numbers. The citations issued at Los Tomates are processed by the Brownsville Municipal Court for administrative convenience, with the city keeping court costs.
From October through June of 2011, DPS issued 152 citations assessed and a total of 172 violations were documented during that time.
The total for fines assessed to truckers was $42,605.
And, a closer look at the list of citations indicate that they came in spurts. For example, on June 10, 2011, seven citations were issued to truckers, most of them between 12:20 and 5 p.m. On October 26, another 7 were issued, with the majority (4) between 7:30 and 7:40. On Dec. 25 (Christmas even!) another six citations were issued. Five were issued on October 25, another 14 on October 14, and another four Dec. 9.
Troopers were especially busy in the period between June 6 to June 9 this year, issuing 14 citations within that three-day period.
The fines for trucks are not light. They vary from $150 for defective turn lamps to $409 to brakes out of adjustment. Being overweight by more than 5,000 pounds carries a $540 fine and $315 for brake drums and pads saturated with grease and oil. There's even one for no interstate fuel permit ($165).
All this is leading some truckers to wonder whether it's worth the trouble to go through Los Tomates.
"I know of some truckers who make the longer trip around other international bridges further up river than to go through Los Tomates," said a truck company dispatcher near the bridge. "The word has gotten out that DPS will be at Los Tomates on certain days and they choose to go further upriver instead. It may be a little more fuel, but it comes up cheaper than paying those stiff fines coming and going."
If and when the county, city and DPS work out an arrangement to make Los Tomates more "truck-friendly," Sepulveda hopes it will lure "an additional 250 trucks per day that would equate to a revenue increase of about 25 percent for the county and, in turn, the city."
Tito Lopez, chairman of the port commission and also president of the Jonick-Lopez International Transport said most of his trucks trucks don’t cross into the United States via Los Tomates even though it lies less than 10 miles from his company’s headquarters at the Port. He said the long waits and hassle with that bridge prompts most companies, including his own, to drive to Pharr, some 50 miles away, to avoid crossing at Veterans.
“It’s a hectic thing. You get tired of the downtime,” he told a Herald reporter.
“For us it’s kind of feasible to cross through Pharr only because it seems like their operations are more streamlined. They both have the same laws, but to go through Pharr it’s less of a hassle and takes less time.”
As a result of that, Sepulveda said that crossings in Brownsville remained relatively unchanged, with 2012 totals showing crossings to be down by more than 5,000 compared to 1995 crossings.
Depending on whether one chooses to believe it, a joint presentation put together by the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, the Cameron County Regional Motor Authority, the city, the port and the Brownsville Public Utilities Board. indicates that produce companies have already "started thinking" of moving here to clean up on the coming trade.
And let's not forget that, as Arambula often says, the Panama Canal is being widened so that superships carrying Chinese goods can pass through there and anchor off the port, unload here and ship their goods through rial and truck or through the Intercoastal Waterway and into the U.S. interior.
Now all we need is another highway sign unveiling and everything will be alright.