Chairman Inhofe, Senator Cornyn, my name is Sam F. Vale. I am a businessman here in the Rio Grande Valley involved in various aspects of cross-border trade as the CEO of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, as well as president of the local Telemundo television affiliate. But I appear here today as Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of the Border Trade Alliance, an organization of which I am a founding board member and for whom I have served as chairman.
As you may know, since 1986 the BTA has served as the voice for free and efficient trade for our border communities, north and south. Our mission is to initiate, monitor and influence public policy and private sector initiatives for the facilitation of international trade and commerce through advocacy, education, issue development, research and analysis, and strategic planning. Throughout our history, the BTA has had numerous occasions to testify before Congressional committees such as this one, and we welcome the opportunity to join you here today.
I would like touch on a few topics here today that I hope will be of interest to the committee as it examines the state of affairs of our borders and our international ports of entry. First, I’ll provide some comments on BTA’s position on border region transportation funding. Secondly, I’ll touch on the subject of border region infrastructure. Finally, I’ll close with subject of great
importance to both the U.S.-Canada and the U.S.-Mexico borders: Entry and exit controls, or, as the entry/exit project is now known, US VISIT.
Border region transportation funding
In 1998, a program and funding stream was established to help border communities and communities along international trade corridors handle the increased traffic they faced from growing NAFTA trade. The funding for the Borders and Corridors program, sections 1118 and 1119 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), will be reauthorized this year.
In 1998, the Borders and Corridors Program was authorized at $140 million per year for fiscal years 1999 through 2003.
A total of 43 corridors were identified in this program, with a provision to add corridors at a later date; and every border port of entry in the United States was eligible for funding. In addition, the designated funding stream was heavily earmarked, making even fewer dollars available for border communities and true international trade corridors, as funds were diverted to the interior of the country and other non-trade corridor projects.
The corridor applicants to the program were allocated 86 percent of the program funding, while border communities were allocated 14 percent of the funding.
The Border Trade Alliance (BTA) supports the following changes in the structure of the Borders and Corridors Program:
1. Cease Earmarking. The BTA feels that earmarking puts politically weaker communities at a distinct disadvantage and reduces the overall amount of money available to the communities for which it is intended.
2. Split Program Funding. The BTA believes border communities and true international trade corridors are both important enough in the fabric of our national transportation system to warrant their own programs. The borders and corridors should each be allocated their own funding stream.
In addition, we encourage a significant part of the funding allocated for the borders be dedicated to projects within 50 miles of the U.S. border and that are directly related to the movement of goods from land border ports of entry to interstate highways.
The division of these programs will also help with the implementation of many of the new measures aimed at increasing the security of our homeland. Operations at our ports of entry play an integral role in the security of our borders and our supply chain. Additional funding, dedicated for borders, would help fund even more increased security measures at all ports of entry.
3. Define Ratios. The BTA believes a specific ratio of funding should be defined for the borders and corridors separated funding streams. We support a minimum split of 50 percent-50 percent. For the past five fiscal years, corridors have received 86 percent of the funding, while borders have received only 14 percent. It is time to make up that vast disparity and provide enough funding to the borders so that they may process ever-burgeoning trade and move it quickly onto true international trade corridors.
4. Increase Appropriations. The land border ports of entry and the trade corridors contribute billions annually to the economy of the United States. It is imperative that we fund the infrastructure improvements needed in order to continue reaping the benefits of NAFTA and other free trade agreements. The BTA recommends an annual appropriation of at least $500 million dollars, split 50-50 between the borders and corridors.
5. Develop New Language Regarding Priority Ranking System. Small rural border communities that are not part of a Metropolitan Planning Organization are often left at the bottom of the priority ranking system by their states. The BTA recommends language be written into the law that would direct states, in their ranking of projects, to treat projects from areas without an MPO equally.
A final point, that is not directly related to the Borders and Corridors Program but that is relevant to border communities and transportation funding, is the issue of population based formulas used in determining a community’s allocation of its state’s total federal funding. Currently, border communities are allocated money from their state’s share of TEA-21 based on a population formula. This is insufficient. Laredo, Texas, for example, has one percent of our state’s population, and is therefore allocated one percent of the TEA-21 funding from this state. However, Laredo, Texas is second in the nation in the amount of trade traffic they process on a daily basis.
Border communities are also unique in that their metropolitan areas are not completely in the United States and therefore their total metropolitan area populations are not accounted for in population-based formulas. Border communities are often only blocks away from their sister cities on the other side of the border, a shorter distance than many cities that are grouped together in the Metropolitan Statistical Area within the States. We need to create formulas that take the unique geography and realities of border communities into account.
Status quo of the Borders and Corridors Program is unacceptable. The BTA believes that these changes will enhance the ability of goods to move quickly and efficiently through our ports of entry and into the rest of the country so that consumers may continue to benefit.
Border region infrastructure
The BTA has long called for improved infrastructure and technology at our land border ports of entry. The men and women who secure our borders while processing ever increasing volumes of trade deserve efficient facilities that make it possible for them to carry out their important jobs to the best of their abilities.
While the BTA does not take positions on individual projects proposed by various border communities, we can say that our borders need new and improved bridges, and new land crossing facilities. With the coming implementation of US VISIT, the Department of Homeland Security’s entry and exit control system, the need to install modern functional infrastructure has taken on even great importance.
The Border Trade Alliance’s various positions on border transportation and infrastructure are now colored by the coming implementation of the US VISIT entry/exit system. US VISIT is the acronym for the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program.
According to a Department of Homeland Security press release issued on April 29, US VISIT “will utilize a minimum of two biometric identifiers, such as photographs, fingerprints or iris scans, to build an electronic check in/check out system for people coming to the U.S. to work, study or visit.”
The BTA has been the border trade community’s watchdog on entry/exit since the subject first arose in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and the subsequent legislation that amended the 1996 law, the INS Data Management and Improvement Act of 2000, or DMIA.
According to DMIA, an integrated entry and exit control system is to be installed and the 50 largest land border ports of entry by December 31, 2004 and at all remaining land border ports of entry by then end of 2005.
As these deadlines inch ever closer, we in border communities are faced with the prospect of severe traffic congestion at our southbound lanes, and damage to our local economies as the hassle of crossing our borders increases, thus discouraging legitimate tourists and shoppers. It is vitally important to the continued economic health of border communities from San Diego to Brownsville that when US VISIT is implemented that it is done in manner that is in the best interest of border communities.
The Department of Homeland Security claims that US VISIT will enhance traffic flow for individuals entering or exiting the U.S. for legitimate purpose by:
· Facilitating travel and commerce;
· Respecting the environment;
· Strengthening international cooperation; and
· Respecting privacy laws and policies.
If US VISIT is poorly designed and implemented and does not, as it claims it will, enhance the border crossing process, then we run the risk of inflicting economic damage on our communities the likes from which we may never recover.
The Border Trade Alliance thanks you for this opportunity to offer our testimony on these important issues affecting the Texas-Mexico border region. We are committed to ensuring that the border region’s transportation, infrastructure, and security needs are met for the 21st century.