Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA TERESA – Semi-trucks inched slowly over the U.S. border into Mexico in single file one recent weekday morning – just a hint of the traffic jam expected here in the coming months.
Union Pacific Railroad will ramp up operations at its much-touted truck-to-rail hub through April and plans a grand opening May 28, about a year ahead of schedule.
But observers in government and business on both sides of the border say neither side is ready to handle the expected increase in truck traffic at New Mexico’s fastest-growing commercial port of entry.
Jerry Pacheco, vice president of the Border Industrial Association, a business group, describes the coming traffic as a “tsunami” and envisions a “swampland of trucks” if current infrastructure limitations are not resolved.
Among the top issues are the single southbound cargo lane that exits Santa Teresa to San Jeronimo and narrow roadways that then feed to the border highway to Ciudad Juárez, as well as poor conditions at a key road in the Santa Teresa industrial park.
“We’re not prepared for the volume of traffic we’re going to be getting here,” he said. “I am very worried that we are starting to react to the amount of commerce we have here instead of planning to accommodate it.”
At the sprawling UP rail hub – an 11.5-by-1 mile tract just minutes from the Mexican border – trucks will transfer their cargo to rail and vice versa. Pacheco said he expects an additional 500 to 800 trucks a day at the facility, coming to and from Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.
Much of the pressure is on Mexico’s shoulders, New Mexico Border Authority Executive Director Bill Mattiace said. Construction in Santa Teresa to widen the single southbound cargo lane to three lanes is slated to begin in May, thanks to a previous $400,000 state capital outlay. That will move the bottleneck south of the border, he said.
Mattiace heads to Mexico City today for a three-day binational meeting on border logistics and infrastructure. Eliminating the southbound bottleneck is the priority, he said, adding that he will request Mexico “upgrade, widen and match what we’re doing on the U.S. side.”
“It’s so important that we create a mirror image of infrastructure on both sides,” he said.
The Santa Teresa facility marks a key transfer point on the railroad’s haul between the ports of Long Beach, Calif., and hubs farther east in Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, and Kansas City, Kan. Eventually rail may link across the border, should Ciudad Juárez commit to shifting a freight rail line out of its downtown to the San Jeronimo industrial park that shares the border with Santa Teresa.
In the meantime, the condition and availability of roadways for truck traffic is the primary issue on both sides of the border, observers say.
In Mexico, the single cargo lane joins a narrow two-lane road that carries trucks and passenger traffic north and south.
San Jeronimo sits at the far western edge of Ciudad Juárez, and today there is little development besides the factory of Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which produces Dell computers for export to the United States.
Asked whether San Jeronimo is ready for UP’s launch, Ciudad Juárez Mayor Enrique Serrano said, “No, not yet. We still need to build roads and infrastructure projects to support the services that will be needed,” such as warehouses, industrial spaces and residential.
Traffic has been climbing at the port, with trucks heading south loaded with supplies for Mexico’s assembly factories and goods from automotive parts to computers and blades for wind turbines heading north. The number of trucks crossing at Santa Teresa increased 57 percent in five years, to nearly 81,000 from just over 51,000 in 2009.
Miriam Baca Kotkowski, president of Omega Trucking, said her company moves some 200 trucks monthly through the Santa Teresa port of entry. She said she sees enormous potential at the only major land port in the region – El Paso’s ports of entry are all bridges – which is also uniquely prepared to handle oversize and overweight trucks.
“I believe the volume will increase tremendously,” she said, but cautioned that, especially with regard to infrastructure on the Mexican side, “we are in desperate need of expansion. We have been begging for some attention.”
“We’re expecting that when the freight, the cargo, is put onto the trains, we’ll have empties,” Mattiace said. “We’re projecting 100 to as high as 300 trucks per day taking the border highway back to Juárez maquilas,” as the city’s assembly plants are known.
Santa Teresa recently expanded its ability to handle cargo traffic coming north, and Pacheco notes that a planned pilot program in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection will preclear vehicles in San Jeronimo will help, as will the expanded southbound lane.
But in the Santa Teresa industrial park, Airport Road, which was built in the 1980s, is crumbling, and it’s not clear yet if the port of entry expansion will suffice, Pacheco said. A request for $2 million in state funding for road repairs failed during the legislative session.
“My team is recruiting brand new companies,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of bigger deals in the hopper. When do we finally choke the golden goose by not feeding it?”`