LAREDO. Texas - Nearly 25 years after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed into law, changes could soon be on the horizon.
A $100 million expansion and modernization plan is in the works to transform one of the busiest land ports in the Western Hemisphere into World Trade Bridge 2.0, unless a drastic change emerges from the NAFTA re-negotiations starting this week.
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A spokesman for the office of Congressman Henry Cuellar confirms U.S. Customs and Border Protection has set aside most of the money and is looking for other avenues of funding.
In addition to doubling its existing capacity, Brad Skinner, CBP assistant director of trade, said they are looking at the latest in technology and non-intrusive inspection equipment, a command center and other improvements.
“That entire package is what we’re looking at for World Trade Bridge 2.0 modernization effort,” Skinner said.
"Laredo, when you talk about NAFTA, is really where the rubber meets the road," said interim city manager Horacio De Leon.
And rubber does meet the road in the border city, some 51 percent of the goods heading back and forth across the border pass through Laredo.
"All these trucks that come through this port touch every single state in the U.S.,” Alberto Flores, deputy director of Port of Laredo, said.
Tolls on southbound traffic alone generate $60 million yearly for the city of Laredo, where over half the jobs are free trade related.
Laredo’s interim city manager, said the World Trade Bridge that opened seven years after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993.
“That money keeps our property taxes down. We’re going into our 14th year without increasing our tax rate,” De Leon said.
De Leon said that’s why Laredo wants to see an infrastructure agreement come out of the re-negotiations between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
A city spokeswoman said Laredo will have several representatives at the talks.
The plan is to expand the bridge from eight to 16 lanes, install the latest in technology, X-ray equipment and other improvements.
One changes has already occurred. Joint inspections by the United States and Mexico are already underway and will be part of the streamlined operation of the expanded World Trade Bridge.
Brad Skinner, assistant director of trade for the CBP, said the end result will be "reliability, predictability and less redundancy on both sides."
And for customs brokers and companies trying to get their product across the border, time is money.
Yet there is concern that renegotiations could make it more costly and difficult to do business.
"Once it gets more expensive, well, sales suffer,” Henry Gonzales, with Licensed U.S. Customs Brokers Association, said. “Once sales suffer, then people's jobs suffer."
Although President Donald Trump called NAFTA “the worst deal ever,” Gonzalez said, “Perhaps there is a trade imbalance with Mexico and perhaps it’s substantial.”
But he said other countries have much larger trade deficits with the U.S.
“As Mexico grows and becomes a bigger consumer, that trade imbalance should taper off as time goes by,” Gonzalez said.
Regardless of what the new NAFTA agreement brings, the goal of modernizing the World Trade Bridge continues.
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