TESTIMONY

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Transportation Investment
for the Southwest Texas Border Region

 

 

 

Testimony Before the

United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

 

 

 

 

 

Wm. R. Stockton, P. E.

Associate Agency Director

Texas Transportation Institute
The Texas A&M University System

 

August 11, 2003  


Wm. R. Stockton, P. E.

 

Testimony before the Senate Committee
on Environment and Public Works

 

 

Introduction

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senator Cornyn and members of the committee for the opportunity to be here today. I am Bill Stockton, Associate Director of the Texas Transportation Institute, a research agency of The Texas A&M University System. Along with colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin, I have been working on a variety of transportation issues relating to the Texas-Mexico border for the past several years. Our focus has been transborder freight movement, in particular, how to speed the movement of the increased commercial traffic resulting from the implementation of NAFTA across the border without compromising U.S. national security.

Why should you care about the impact of border freight on the Texas transportation network?

·        Mexico is the second largest trading partner of the United States - $200 billion annually

·        80 percent of that trade crosses the border in a truck, mostly through Texas -- $160 billion annually

·        60 percent of that truck traffic is bound for a destination beyond Texas -- $100 billion annually.

·        25% of all border trade, northern or southern border, comes through Texas

·        So Texas is the port-of-entry for the rest of the nation.

 In our research, we have observed two categories of challenges—physical and institutional—and we see opportunities stemming from both

 Physical Challenges

With very few exceptions, current border truck traffic is far beyond the level envisioned when most border stations, border communities and border highways were planned.  As a result, the border stations are often cramped, truck traffic backs up into border cities on both sides causing congestion and air pollution, and border highways often show distress of repeated heavy loads. Very few of the inspection compounds have adequate space to accommodate peak traffic demands.  Advances in inspection technologies and changes in inspection practices are often


difficult to accommodate in older vintage border stations, where inspections were carried out at a loading dock instead today's multi-million dollar "x-ray" machines. Likewise, most of the international bridges have too few lanes to keep northbound trucks from standing in long queues back into Mexico.

 Local street networks on both sides of the border are often overloaded with traffic, but it is the truck queues waiting to cross the border that cause most of the mobile source air pollution.   Sister-city trade has dropped off considerably due to long queues waiting for processing at the border.  Regional highways that connect the border to the rest of the nation, like U.S. 77, U.S. 281 and I-35 have seen dramatic increases in truck traffic. Because a fully-loaded truck causes pavement damage 9000 times greater than a passenger car, the stresses on local streets and regional highways is well beyond the original design. That means additional costs for state and local transportation agencies as they try to maintain roads and keep local drivers safe.

Institutional Challenges

It is a common mistake to think of transborder freight movement as something that begins and ends at the port-of-entry.  In the past, most proposed  "solutions" have examined only the port-of-entry, ignoring the reality that the process—especially the transportation component—begins with the shipper, possibly in interior Mexico, and ends with the receiver, perhaps as far inside the U.S as Chicago.  If we want to achieve the full economic benefits of international trade, while assuring security and safety, we have to see the process in its "big picture" view.

Prior to September 11, 2001, more than 100 federal agencies had some role in approving or processing or sharing data on truck traffic crossing the border.  That number does not include the host of state, local and private interests that have legitimate roles in the crossing process.  Given the complexity of the process and the vast number of players, it is amazing that it works as well as it does. As you might imagine with a system this complex, coordination among all the players is very difficult and historically has not been very effective.

 Most of today's coordination problems existed before NAFTA and they continue because there is no over-arching mechanism to make sure they get fixed and stay fixed.  The reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security certainly provides a structure for the federal inspection agencies, but because transportation issues are not exclusive the federal inspection compound, there is still great room for improvement.

It should be understood that the goals of transborder truck transportation are different from any other aspect of transportation. Each of the myriad of public and private sector stakeholders in the process has its own measure of success, so there is no common yardstick by which we can measure the efficiency or effectiveness of one port-of-entry versus another.  Without such benchmarks, it is difficult, if not impossible to know where to allocate resources to improve operations or infrastructure. Each of these stakeholders does the natural thing: they focus on streamlining and optimizing their portion of the process, with only passing attention to how their actions affect the overall process.  For example, border infrastructure and staffing is overloaded during parts of the day and very underutilized at others.  Long standing private sector practices and differences in public agency schedules have thus far thwarted efforts to even the flows throughout the day, reducing congestion, waiting time and air pollution.  There is enormous potential for "everybody wins" in a big picture approach to coordination. 

 The bottom line is that transborder freight movement is a supply-chain system. The sooner we manage it that way, the sooner we'll reap the benefits.  There are lots of things that remain unknown, but there are great universities that possess enormous skill to tackle the unknowns as objective outsiders.  In addition to Texas A&M University and UT-Austin, we have colleagues at UT-Brownsville, Texas A&M International in Laredo,  UT-El Paso, and UT-San Antonio who contribute greatly to the betterment of transborder trade. They bring unique experience and expertise which can help identify particular regional issues to be addressed.

Opportunities

Great progress has been made in spite of the challenges of exponential growth in truck traffic and emerging needs for security and truck safety.  Efforts led by the Federal Highway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation have not only made bold steps in defining the issues, but also have begun rapid implementation of solutions.  And despite the concerns I have raised about physical and institutional challenges, there are excellent opportunities to be explored and solutions to be tested.

Since widening of the international bridges and expansion of the border inspection facilities is not an immediate prospect, then we must focusing on better managing the traffic, just as we do on freeways that cannot be expanded.  Many of the tools of intelligent transportation systems, or ITS, have excellent application in transborder truck movement.

Several are worthy of mention:

·        The Texas Model Border Crossing incorporates off-the-shelf technologies and processes to detect, identify, screen, and track trucks through commercial border crossings, providing smooth and rapid passage to those that are in full compliance with federal and state laws and rules.  This traffic management application would be an ideal complement to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection’s Secure Trade Expedited Processing program, in progress on parts of the Texas-Mexico border.  I have taken the liberty to attach to this testimony a copy of the Model Border Crossing Briefing Document.

·        Deploying short range radio frequency technologies to detect and identify trucks before they reach the border.  Not only does this provide advance notice to inspection agents, but it allows them to identify “low risk” traffic and route it expeditiously, focusing resources on unknown or high risk traffic.  These improvements are being pilot tested at the commercial crossing in Otay Mesa, CA.

·        Using dynamic message signs and lane control signals to sort trucks and route them upstream of and within the border station.

·        Interfacing the computer systems of federal inspection agencies with those of state governments, especially at the border safety inspection facilities operated by the Texas Department of Public Safety to share identification data and violation histories, as well as credentials, operating authority, insurance coverage, etc.  It makes sense to capture this information once and share it. 

·        Incorporating this computer interface with TxDOT’s commercial vehicle operations strategic program, which will eventually allow law enforcement personnel throughout the state and nation to quickly access information about weight, inspection history, etc, saving time for law enforcement and trucker alike.

 Making changes to improved traffic management takes two partners—government and the trade community.  Compliance with trade laws, national security requirements and truck safety regulations ought to be worth something to the trade community.  Coordinated incentives are essential. It does little good for a trucker to save five minutes from an expedited inspection by a Customs inspector if he had to wait three hours to get to the inspection booth.  A comprehensive program to provide meaningful time incentives—for the entire supply chain from receiver to shipper—would improve appreciably voluntary compliance and provide significant benefits to both trade and security.

 Recommendations

1.      Provide for a full-scale pilot of the model border crossing at a busy Texas port-of-entry.

2.      Commission a study to define the elements, the players and the process to assure over-arching planning and coordination of the entire supply-chain movement of transborder freight.

3.      Expand the Smart Border pilot project at Otay Mesa, CA to the larger commercial border crossings, especially in Texas. 

4.      Encourage variable tolling at international bridges, using market forces to balance peak demands and accommodate time-sensitive shipments.  Provide reserve funding to assure bridge operators and bond holders financial interests.

5.      Expand the federally-mandated metropolitan planning process to incorporate border station planning and encourage Mexican sister-city participation.