NOGALES - Mexican driver Nelson Figueroa's idling tractor-trailer full of oranges is about halfway back in a line of trucks that stretches a half-mile into Mexico from the Mariposa Port of Entry.
During the busy winter produce season - when as many as 1,500 trucks come through the port daily - Figueroa and other truck drivers sometimes wait four hours or more to cross. The long waits and uncertainty of when they'll get their fruits and vegetables across are a decade-old problem at a port of entry that handles 40 percent of Mexican fruits and vegetables that come into the U.S.
But the feverish movement of dump trucks, scrapers and water tanks that are methodically filling in a canyon east of the port on the U.S. side offers hope to Figueroa, his bosses and anyone else who moves goods across the border - a new, larger and more efficient port.
The first phase of the $213 million, four-year reconstruction of the Mariposa Port of Entry in western Nogales has begun. When the state-of-the art port is finished in the spring of 2014, it is expected to pay immediate dividends for the Arizona-Sonora regional economy. The new port will have more than double the lanes and better, larger inspection facilities.
"It's great because it's going to be much faster," Figueroa said in Spanish.
In the produce industry, faster movement across the border will bolster business for companies that already use the port and possibly attract other companies to shift their operations, said Al Altuna, freight planner for the Pima Association of Governments and president of the Southern Arizona Logistics Education Organization.
"It helps make our entire Southern Arizona region be more competitive in global business as far as goods movement," Altuna said.
Here's a lowdown on the project:
The $213 million comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus package.
When is it scheduled to be finished?
Why will it take so long?
The current port will be demolished and replaced by a much larger facility. The federal government acquired 13 acres of adjacent land to make room.
The first phase of construction includes filling in three canyons to the east, west and south of the port with more than 600,000 cubic yards of dirt to create more land for buildings.
The new port will have 12 lanes for cars and trucks, eight for commercial tractor-trailers and one for RVs and buses. The current port has eight lanes - four for semis and four for trucks and cars.
The plans also call for primary and secondary inspection areas for semis and non-commercial traffic, a new administration building, a pedestrian-processing facility and a new canine kennel. The southbound inspection lanes will be larger and more equipped for officers to inspect outbound cars and trucks.
There will be four phases to a project that everyone agrees will give Arizona a port that will be envied across the country.
"We are going to be the flagship port for the entire country," said Allison Moore, spokeswoman for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.
"What they are doing here is going to be a model for port design projects following this for years and years."
What can travelers and truck drivers expect during construction?
Travelers will notice the major construction work but shouldn't face any extra delays, said Guadalupe Ramirez, Customs and Border Protection Nogales port director.
Much of the construction work at the current port is going to be be done during slow times of the day or overnight, when the port is closed. The construction schedule also calls for new lanes to be built before old lanes are torn down, Ramirez said.
"We are never going to shut this port down during construction," Ramirez said. "We'll try to keep it moving as fluidly as possible, but anytime you have this huge construction equipment moving earth and putting down concrete and metal, it's definitely a challenge."
What will the benefits be for the Arizona-Sonora economy?
The larger port is expected to expedite the movement of people and goods across the border, which should boost cross-border business and encourage more tourism from Sonora, say business leaders.
For the produce industry, it will mean being able to more accurately predict when fruits and vegetables can be delivered to clients. That should result in more clients, said Moore, of the produce association.
A more efficient port may also attract other produce companies. The produce industry is already the largest private employer in Southern Arizona. It employs more than 12,000 people in Arizona, Moore said.
"Right now, delays are a barrier to trade," Moore said. "With our new port of entry, you are going to see people that cross at other ports in Texas or California looking again at crossing through Nogales, which is going to mean more jobs and more revenue for the state economy."
The port should be much easier for travelers as well, with more lanes and more hours of operation. Ramirez expects the port will become a 24-hour facility when it's finished. Currently, it's open 16 hours a day.
The project is also creating jobs in a tough economy. There are hundreds of construction workers employed on the project, and Customs and Border Protection will be hiring more staff when the larger port opens.
Will Customs and Border Protection have enough officers to staff this huge port?
Hopefully, say government and business officials. The federal government is planning and budgeting to hire new officers for Nogales, Ramirez said. He estimates it will need to bring aboard 60 to 70 more officers to manage the new port. Currently, there are 240 Customs and Border Protection officers in Nogales.
Will improvements need to be made south of the port in Mexico or north of the port in Arizona to avoid bottlenecks?
Probably, and plans are under way on both sides of the border.
On StarNet: Find more photos from this story at azstarnet.com/gallery
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com