The long-awaited renovation of Arizona’s largest port of entry will be completed by the end of the month, but concerns about staffing and potential bottlenecks on the Mexican side remain.
The Mariposa Port of Entry, built in 1973, is undergoing a nearly $200 million renovation that will substantially increase the number of inspections booths and spaces. The changes are expected to speed up the flow of traffic — especially important for the produce industry.
The Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority estimates that about 250 additional officers are needed to fully staff the Port of Nogales, which includes Mariposa and three additional points of entry.
Arizona’s Congressional delegation asked for 500 additional officers for all 10 Arizona ports, but the state will get 170 new positions in fiscal year 2014. Most of the additional officers — 120 — will be stationed at the four Nogales ports, but a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman said the agency does not share specific employment information for individual ports and would not say how many will be at Mariposa.
The new officers “are very welcome and much needed,” said Juan Padrés, economic development specialist for international trade at the City Manager’s Office in Tucson. However, he thinks more are needed — for both trade and for national security.
More customs officers could process more traffic through the Mariposa port. “The faster, the better it is for the entire region, from Nogales to Phoenix,” Padrés said.
Port officers undergo at least 12 weeks of specialized training in addition to a pre-academy and post-academy session, said Edith Serrano, a spokeswoman for CBP. They must learn to screen for several laws and hundreds of regulations while working in ports of entry.
Training could be longer along the Southwest border, she said, because of the Spanish language requirement, which can add five weeks.
CLEAR NEED FOR EXPANSION
About 37 percent of produce imported into the United States from Mexico passes through a port of entry in Nogales, the Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority says. A 2013 University of Arizona study found about 85 percent of the 750,000 commercial trucks crossing between Arizona and Mexico annually traveled through the Mariposa port of entry.
The Mariposa port is important to the economies of Arizona and Mexico, said Allison Moore, of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. But getting through it before the renovation was often time-consuming.
When traffic was flowing as intended, the port ran efficiently. But “if one little thing misfired, it was just the ripple effect of waiting five, six, seven hours to cross the border,” Moore said.
As early as 2001, Moore said, “we were all saying our port of entry is really outdated, our infrastructure is really limited, our footprint, as it was then, was too small.”
The volunteer Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority began working to convince government officials the Mariposa port needed to be expanded, said Bruce Bracker, port authority chairman. The plan was ready in 2007, but it took three federal budget cycles for it to get approved.
The General Services Administration identified the project as one of three Pacific Rim Region recipients for federal economic stimulus, or Recovery Act, funds. The projects chosen “not only filled a critical need within their communities, they also created jobs to help stimulate the economy,” Traci Madison, spokeswoman for the agency, said via email.
Nearly 80 percent of subcontract work went to small businesses and about 400 jobs were created during the first four phases of the project, Madison wrote.
Construction began in November 2009, and the port has stayed open throughout, which Moore highlighted as a major success. That allowed capacity to double about two to three years before the project was completed.
Pima County, and the rest of Arizona, profits immensely from trade and tourism with Mexico, said Padrés, the Tucson economic development specialist. A 2008 UA study found that 5.2 percent of total taxable sales in Pima County were due to Mexican visitors. Every day, Mexican visitors to Arizona spend over $7 million in hotels, malls, restaurants and other businesses, the report found.
“We really need to nurture that clientele,” Padrés said. The faster visitors get through customs checks at ports of entry, like Mariposa, the more time and money they can spend in Arizona, he said.
Efficiency through the Mariposa port is especially important now that the Mazatlán-Matamoros highway has been completed in Mexico.
Running from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the Gulf coast near Brownsville, Texas, the new “superhighway” should cut travel times across Mexico nearly in half. This gives Sinaloan growers the option of skipping Arizona and instead shipping produce through Texas.
“So now they have two options, we need to step up our game,” Padrés said. “If you’re idling, every hour you’re on the truck is costing gas. It’s costing man-hours. So faster is cheaper.”
Bracker, of the Nogales Port Authority, isn’t worried about the Mazatlán-Matamoros superhighway.
“The funny thing is, when you build a roadway, it doesn’t just go from the west to the east. You get another lane that goes from the east to the west,” he said. This has already been used to bring new products through Nogales, where there is a long-established distribution network in place.
STAFFING STILL AN ISSUE
Long wait times and traffic bottlenecks in Arizona should ease after the renovations to the Mariposa port of entry are complete.
However, some still worry about bottlenecks on the Sonoran side of the port.
A roughly 8-mile stretch of road, called the “fiscal corridor,” leads away from the Mariposa port and joins with Mexican highway 15. Businessman Miguel Abed leases the fiscal corridor, and as concessionary, he is responsible for upkeep and improvements to the road. In return, he receives tolls.
The fiscal corridor is meant to speed up traffic away from the port. Drivers go through customs at the end of the corridor, away from the border. Ideally, that lets products and goods enter Mexico without long waits at the border, said Sebastián Galván Duque Covarrubias, who handles economic issues for the Mexican Consulate in Tucson. It also keeps trucks out of the Nogales city center.
For years, the fiscal corridor has been home to traffic jams and backlogs. That’s partly due to the quadrupling in trade between the United States and Mexico with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, said Ricardo Pineda Albarrán, Consul of Mexico.
Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto recently approved a four-year program to improve many aspects of infrastructure, including roads, which Albarrán said will help trade.
More needs to be done — and Albarrán said he expects it will happen soon. For example, the concessionary company is adding passenger lanes, Galván Duque Covarrubias said.
Padrés, of the Tucson city manager’s office, is less optimistic about that project. He said the concessionary has been “giving the run-around to the community for the past eight, nine years, saying that he’s going to do the infrastructure improvements necessary.” Because he leases the land, the Sonoran government can’t do anything to speed up construction or pressure him to improve the fiscal corridor.
Abed was reached by email but did not respond to the Star’s questions.
Regardless of what happens with the fiscal corridor, Moore, of the Fresh Produce Association, called the expansion of the Mariposa port of entry good news for Arizona.
“The fact that it’s happening here and that we’re going to be the flagship port in the country is something that Arizonans should be really excited about,” she said.