Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
COLUMBUS – New Mexico’s first, historic port of entry may also be its most neglected.
Two of New Mexico’s three border crossings have received updates in recent years – Antelope Wells and Santa Teresa – and the third, Columbus, is awaiting a facelift. The 25-year-old Columbus facility is slated to receive $7.4 million to fund the design phase of a planned $66 million expansion at the port of entry that shares a border with dusty town of Palomas.
The problem has often been that the U.S. makes a large investment in infrastructure, while similar commitments in Mexico go unheeded and timelines drag out.
At the Columbus-Palomas crossing, it appears to be the U.S. that has dragged its feet. An expansion has been discussed for years, and a $3.5 million bypass road designed to connect what would be a new crossing point for cargo to the long-planned new facility has sat idle since its completion in 2011.
“Mirror, mirror” is the mantra, said Bill Mattiace, executive director of the New Mexico Border Authority. “It’s so important that we create a mirror image of infrastructure on both sides of the border.”
Mattiace said the Border Authority is preparing an application for the required presidential permit to open the new cargo gate.
“That would be part of the expansion,” he said.
This month, work began on the Palomas side to resolve key issues: Semi trucks hauling hay or chile rumble over a dirt road and make a sharp turn into a single northbound lane while they wait to cross the border. Meanwhile, cars and trucks heading south from the U.S. into Mexico also feed into a crowded, single southbound lane.
‘Not like Tornillo’
An impromptu meeting recently took place between Mattiace; Sergio Romero, owner of the popular Pink Store in Palomas; and the new director of Mexican customs at the port of entry, Miguel Angel Aguilar Zamora. In Aguilar Zamora’s office, the three men took turns drawing on the back of a set of papers a sketch of what the two ports of entry will look like once plans materialize.
Less than a month later, Palomas has torn down an unused customs building to make way for a second southbound lane, while work to pave the road taken by semi-trucks is slated to begin this month, Aguilar Zamora said. When finished, the Palomas port of entry will go from one lane in, one lane out, to two lanes headed in each direction. Palomas also plans to pave a road where cargo trucks would eventually enter the new gate, once U.S. plans come to fruition.
“The idea is to change the port’s image so that it motivates people to visit,” Aguilar Zamora said, adding that he hopes to have the work finished by the end of the year. “We can’t get too far behind.”
Romero chimed in: “Not like Tornillo.”
The latest major port of entry project in the region – the Tornillo-Guadalupe bridge east of El Paso – has become a symbol of poor cooperation: When the U.S. finished its half of the bridge last summer, Mexico had not moved a shovel. The bridge stood halfway over the border for six months before Mexico broke ground on its side of the project in January this year.
CBP officials say Columbus needs an expanded and modernized facility to handle growing pedestrian traffic and the high season of commercial traffic from August to January, when trucks carrying agricultural products from Mexico – especially chile – increase. Plans call for an expansion that would triple the size of the port facility to more than 60,000 square feet from about 20,000 square feet and would make room for additional cargo inspections. Currently, CBP officials say they can handle inspections of just three trucks at a time.
From August to January, the number of trucks crossing at the Columbus port daily jumps from an average of 30 to between 80 and 100, according to CBP Columbus Assistant Port Director Tony Hall.
“We’re already seeing more traffic in this region, and there is great potential for growth and economic development that would create jobs and generate economic activity in New Mexico and Chihuahua,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said in an emailed response to questions.
Rigoberto Guzman of Deming has been crossing the Columbus-Palomas border for 25 years – since the existing facility was brand new – hauling “chiles, tomatillos, blue corn and many other products from the fields.” The wait in Palomas to cross the border and take the products to Las Cruces, Hatch and Albuquerque takes a long time, he said.
“I’d like a bigger place” in Columbus, he said. “During the high season, that’s when it affects us.”
The number of pedestrian crossers has climbed 37 percent over five years, to more than 290,000 in 2013 from about 212,000 in 2009. But over the same period, cargo traffic has not increased: CBP reports some 6,800 trucks crossed at the Columbus port of entry in 2009. Five years later, the number was 6,600. Car traffic has held more or less steady, between 320,000 and 325,000 cars annually.
“Investments in the future of the port will ensure traffic flows safely while we maintain security and increase trade opportunities,” Udall said.