Hurry Up and Wait

The state, industry push for a new Nogales-area border-crossing station

The state of Arizona is trying harder, but falling further behind.

That's a synopsis of the state's efforts to attract Mexican commercial traffic. Now, Arizona political and business leaders want the federal government to help out by reconfiguring the Mariposa border station west of Nogales.

Calling the project a "high priority," Gov. Janet Napolitano on Oct. 31 sent a letter to the federal Office of Management and Budget, asking for $165 million to construct the revised crossing.

Industry groups want the new border station, too.

"We've made several trips to Washington D.C.," says Allison Moore, communications director for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA), a lobbying group. "We hope it is included in the budget but know there are a lot of competing interests."

Moore indicates the redesigned station isn't only needed to get commercial trucks across the border faster, but also to enhance security.

In her letter, Napolitano says that in 2006, more than 1 million passenger vehicles, 424,000 pedestrians and almost 300,000 trucks crossed into the United States through the Mariposa station.

Even though media reports say she heralded a new U.S. truck-inspection station at the Mariposa crossing as producing "greater efficiency" in 2004, the governor has been working with the FPAA and others to totally redo the entire crossing.

Arizona's loss of market share in Mexican commerce may explain that position.

Studies conducted since the 1990s show Arizona continuing to fall further behind other border states when it comes to Mexican business. One recent UA analysis reports: "Despite an increase in absolute volume, the (Arizona-Sonora) region experienced a relative decline in the share of commodities shipped through all border states, dropping from 8.3 percent in 1997 to 7.1 percent in 2005."

Moore stresses the importance of this trade to the state's economy involving fruits and vegetables.

"The produce business is one of the largest employers in Southern Arizona, with 12,000 to 13,000 employees," she says. "Those people need to shop and buy homes, and they're important to keep the economy of the area moving forward."

Recommending both process changes as well as physical changes at all of Arizona's border crossings, a 2002 UA study proposed: "Facilities and infrastructure must be flexibly designed and large enough to accommodate demand the vast majority of the time."

That isn't the case for commercial truck traffic crossing into the United States at the Mariposa location today. A check on figures from two afternoons last week showed that wait times were one hour, the third-longest of any station along the border.

To address that difficulty, the idea is to redesign the Mariposa border crossing to essentially double its capacity. In addition to six passenger-vehicle lanes, there would be six inspection booths for commercial trucks, along with many other features.

Early cost estimates for this project were $95 million, but that figure has now escalated to $180 million. Just less than $14 million has been authorized for the design of the new station, and a Phoenix firm--Jones Studio--is preparing those plans.

No funds, though, have been allocated yet for construction. That is why Napolitano wrote asking for $165 million to be included in the federal budget for the fiscal year which begins on Oct. 1, 2008. She wants the design work to flow right into construction so the project can be completed by 2012.

"We'll push to revise the draft budget if the money isn't included," says Moore of the FPAA. "But if it's not, we'll find some other way (to federally fund the project)."

Acknowledging he doesn't know enough about the Mariposa station redesign to specifically comment on it, Andrew Marshall of the Teamsters office in Phoenix does say that increased inspections of Mexican trucks are needed to keep American roads safe. If that isn't done, Marshall suggests: "It will take a horrendous accident to get people's attention."

If the construction proposal does proceed, Moore doesn't think it will necessarily mean more Mexican trucks will be driving on U.S. highways. That has been a major concern since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented in 1994.

"The produce will still be off-loaded in Nogales," Moore says, "and not a lot of Mexican trucks will come into the United States since they need return loads." Besides, Moore adds, shipments of produce are mixed to a customer's specification in Nogales, and it will be American trucks carrying those loads northward.

While people in Arizona trying to secure funding await word from Washington, the UA is now also looking at the roads around the crossing.

"Our goal is to identify the bottlenecks on the roads on both sides of the border," says Elyse Golob, director of the University's Office of Economic and Policy Analysis, about the $100,000 study. "We'll provide low-cost solutions which will expedite the flow of commerce."

To be completed next summer, this study will be based in part on traffic data collected in February, the peak of the agricultural shipping season.

Golob emphasizes that this report complements the plans for redesigning the Mariposa station, which she calls the lynchpin to all of the improvements being considered.

"They're pieces of a puzzle that fit together," Golob says.

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