Border trade picking up after dip in first months of COVID-19 pandemic

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New Mexico port of entry sees record growth despite reduced activity in U.S.-run plants in Mexico; shorter waits, more factories and wind-blade traffic credited for recovery

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Cross-border trade is picking up in El Paso and Southern New Mexico, after months of decreased activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The port of entry at Santa Teresa, New Mexico, in particular, is reporting unprecedented levels of truck traffic coming from U.S.-run plants south of the border.

“We’re having record cargo crossings at Santa Teresa. In July we had the highest number of (northbound) trucks in the history of the port, with over 13,000. That’s about 15% of the total commercial crossings in the region. We used to be 5% to 7%. It’s been crazy out here,” said Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Border Industrial Association.

BIA charts compiled from data reported by federal agencies show truck traffic from Mexico is up at all three major commercial crossings in the El Paso-Juarez-Southern New Mexico region.

Commercial traffic picking up in El Paso, Texas-Southern New Mexico Region (courtesy BIA)

The Ysleta-Zaragoza port of entry in June rebounded to near normal traffic levels after seeing nearly half of its traffic vanish in April and May. That coincided with factories in Juarez substantially reducing operations due to fears of coronavirus outbreaks. In fact, 25 maquiladora workers in Juarez died from complications of COVID-19 during that period, according to Chihuahua state health authorities.

Drops in commercial activity were less steep at Santa Teresa and El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas, but both are rebounding, data shows.

The growth of industrial parks in Santa Teresa and traffic gluts at Ysleta are boosting cross-border cargo activity at Santa Teresa, Pacheco said.

Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Border Industrial Association (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“It’s starting to resonate in the industry how quickly you can cross trucks here — 20 to 40 minutes whereas you’re looking at 3-4 hours minimum at Ysleta,” he said. “Also, the companies we’ve recruited to our Santa Teresa industrial parks are generating more commerce back and forth across the border.”

And then there’s the gigantic wind turbine blades manufactured in Juarez for wind-power electricity producers in the United States that can only cross through Santa Teresa.

Wind blades, increased truck traffic bring calls for port expansion

An extended bed truck approaches the Santa Teresa port of entry, its cargo so large that it can only fit through the farthest-most inspection bay, unhindered by walls or steel pylons.

Once it clears inspection, the truck and its 236-foot fiberglass composite blade crawls to the Pete Domenici Highway and more than a dozen miles onto the nearest Interstate 10 entry ramp in El Paso, Texas.

The blades are made at a TPI Composites 300,000-plus square-foot facility in Juarez and shipped to companies throughout the U.S. that use wind power to produce electricity.

Several trucks carrying 200-foot-long blades for wind turbines sit on the side of the road near the Santa Teresa, N.M., port of entry. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

These shipments are multiplying to keep pace with global energy demand, and the longer the blades are, the most cost-effective electricity they generate.

“They’re really pushing the length, they will soon go to about 75 meters (246 feet) in length. It’s a logistical challenge,” Pacheco said. “They can only move the blades early in the day and only 3-4 at a time. Sometimes they have to park overnight” at out-of-the-way locations and wait for daybreak.

He said the commercial traffic growth and the need to accommodate the entry of wind blades justify a redesign and expansion of the port of entry, which would be a boost to the regional and New Mexico economy.

“We’re trying to get on the priority list in Washington, D.C., to redesign the port. We’re also working with the Municipal Planning Organization locally to get their support,” Pacheco said.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico, said border trade strengthens her state’s economy as well as the region’s businesses, so one of her priorities is investing on the ports of entry. More than $30 billion in imported and exported goods passed through the Southern New Mexico border crossing last year, she said.

“We’re working hard for additional funding and better technology to facilitate trade while also keeping New Mexicans safe,” said Torres Small, who has been vocal about increasing non-intrusive inspection technology (X-ray and other see-through imaging devices) at the U.S.-Mexico border to stop contraband and move licit cargo faster.

She agrees the Santa Teresa Port of Entry needs modernized infrastructure.

“The port can only accommodate 65-meter blades, so we should work to expand our infrastructure to accommodate larger blades,” she said. “Finding ways to modernize Santa Teresa and making sure we have enough customs officers will be crucial to facilitate increased trade that will be good for our economy and capitalize on the improved U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.”

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