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Private investors sought for border infrastructure

Mar. 6, 2013 - 02:45PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

Cross-border trade is booming, but federal building money to expand and enhance border crossings has dried up.

In response, a spate of proposals aim to leverage private funding to make up the difference, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Department of Homeland Security has created a task force to look at ways to encourage private investment in roads and other infrastructure at border crossings. In a recently proposed overhaul of the immigration system, the Obama administration also suggested allowing DHS to accept donations from citizens, businesses, and state and local governments to enhance border crossings, officially known as land ports of entry, according to a copy of the package obtained by USA Today, a sister paper of Federal Times.

On a separate track, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in January reintroduced a bill that would allow Customs and Border Protection, part of DHS, to charge fees in return for providing extra customs and immigration services. The bill would also order the General Services Administration, which owns or leases about three-quarters of the 168 land ports of entry in CBP’s inventory, to set up a process for evaluating cost-sharing proposals for upkeep or construction of new infrastructure. The idea is to ensure that proposals for such alternative financing arrangements “no longer sit on desks in Washington for decades,” Cornyn said in a news release.

Customs and Border Protection estimates it would take some $6 billion to fully modernize its ports of entry, which are more than 40 years old on average and lack the capacity to handle steadily growing traffic volumes.

But as lawmakers crack down on federally funded construction, ports of entry projects have gotten no money from GSA’s Public Buildings Fund since 2010, according to numbers provided by the Texas Border Coalition, an advocacy group.

“We think it’s a big deal,” John Cook, mayor of El Paso, Texas, and a backer of Cornyn’s bill, said in a phone interview. “Our No. 1 economic driver is international trade. Anything we can do to enhance and protect it is in our best interest.”

There are no rules forbidding public-private partnerships, said Chris Wilson, a trade expert at the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It’s more a matter of creating a stable legal framework that everyone can refer to.”

One example of how this could work is underway along the California-Mexico border, where a group of investors have government approval to build an enclosed pedestrian bridge from San Diego to the Tijuana airport. In return for paying a toll, users will be able avoid traffic tie-ups elsewhere along the border. The walkway is scheduled to open next year.

Congress has yet to act on any specific legislation to spur similar endeavors. And even if it does, permitting requirements and other hurdles means that new projects probably won’t take off for five more years, Wilson said.

In a November report, the DHS Border Infrastructure Task Force outlined a host of other management considerations in setting the rules for privately funded projects. Customs and Border Protection should seek a legislative go-ahead to set user fees to cover facilities and staffing for new ports of entry, the task force said. It added that the agency’s commissioner also needs the authority to decide how much of the expenses private investors should pick up.

Planning for new roads should involve the Canadian and Mexican governments, the task force report said, and partnership project team members should have visas allowing them to work on both sides of the border. The task force also acknowledged that some partnership projects might fail. Therefore, any agreements should require private investors to cover shutdown costs.

CBP is already working on a separate task force recommendation to create an Office of Public-Private Partnerships to help coordinate planning and remove bureaucratic roadblocks. That office could also decide whether any projects already on the boards might lend themselves to private help.

Another concern, Wilson said, is the potential for conflicts of interest. If agribusinesses, for example, agree to pay for hiring more government inspectors with the goal of getting shipments across the border faster, those employees “shouldn’t feel their jobs are on the line when they take the time to do a good inspection,” he said.

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