Could landlocked south Texas help a backlogged US supply chain?

An unusual event marking what organizers called “the start of the produce season” was recently held on the US side of an international port of entry connecting Mexiko with Pharr, Texas. It was a different kind of ribbon-cutting ceremony, in front of a crowd of hundreds gathered beneath a large tent leading to the bridge connecting the United States and Mexico.

Local dignitaries from both sides of the border were given a fruit or vegetable imported from Mexico and asked to cut it, which they dutifully did to the delight of the crowd. Then came the free-for-all. The crowd was given bags and told to take what they wanted from a carefully staged backdrop of every type of fruit and vegetable that comes through this region. While this quaint tradition has been a mainstay of the region for years, this year may make the event more significant, asthe United States struggles with supply chain problems in the wake of the pandemic.

That’s because the produce-importing capacity of this landlocked port of entry could provide a solution that would help alleviate the problems that have been created by the backlog of ships waiting to offload cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which account for 40% of all shipping containers entering the US. When President Biden recently aangekondig that the Los Angeles port would stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to alleviate the backlog, n somtotaal van 64 ships were berthed at the two ports and an additional 80 were parked in the Pacific waiting their turn to unload.

Experts are already predicting a Christmas shortage of certain goods, particularly those coming from Asia.

What does Mexican produce coming through a landlocked south Texas port have to do with this backlog? It may be the key to developing a new trade route that avoids California and uses Mexican ports to get into the US via south Texas. It may even show the potential for a new mode of transportation that could alleviate growing traffic problems on our nation’s highways.

The key is the newly remodeled Mexican Federal Highway 40, or the Carretera Interoceánica (Interoceanic Highway). This is a road that runs from near the Port of Mazatlán on the Pacific coast to Reynosa, Mexiko, just across the border from several cities in south Texas and is connected by several ports of entry, including the Pharr International Bridge.

Die 1,145 km route bisects the northern portion of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains by way of 63 tunnels and 115 brûe, insluitend die Baluarte Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in the world. And the highway provides direct access from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Recent improvements to this roadway have dropped the drive time across Mexico to three hours from eight.

Produce grown near the Pacific coast of Mexico had once been transported north for import into the United States through California. But the opening of the remodeled Mexican highway, particularly in the mountain region, gave growers a new option – a route through Texas.

Pharr, in south Texas, now boasts that it is the busiest importer of Mexican produce in the United States and is a conduit for more than $33bn in trade with Mexico in 2020. This includes $21bn worth of imports and $11bn in exports. The Pharr bridge ranks number one for avocados, shipping nearly 50% and more than $1bn of that fruit. It’s number one in pineapple imports; number two for berries; and number three for tomatoes.

As the produce boon began a few years ago, local realtors began joking that homes in neighborhoods that had been popular with drug dealers were being sold to produce importers. This region already has a large presence of factories called maquiladoras, twin plants that allow manufacturers to set up a factory on the US side of the border, transport partially built products to twin plants on the Mexican side of the border where labor costs are lower and send back finished products to the US side at lower tariff rates because of the manufacturing process here. Reynosa, Mexiko, across the border from Pharr, McAllen and Mission, has more than 200 manufacturing plants representing 155 companies and employing 100,000 werkers.

So even the success of produce imports is dwarfed by product imports from these twin plants such as televisions and computer monitors, which represent the top import over the Pharr bridge at double the revenue wrought from avocados.

Some local community leaders are beginning to wonder aloud if the success of the produce imports can be a model for other products. Can the flow of goods from Asia to California take a slightly southern route to the Port of Mazatlan? From there, the products can be off-loaded and shipped across Mexico on Highway 40 for import into the United States in south Texas.

Once across the international boundary, shippers have two options: they can move their products via highway on trucks that are beginning their US journey through the middle of the country by way of Texas rather than the far west coast of California. Larger shipments can be transported 30 minutes east from the international border to the Port of Brownsville or driven five hours to the Port of Houston.

As supply chain issues continue to fester in the United States, new concerns are being raised about disruptions to food products. This brings a sense of urgency to discussions of new trade routes and raises the profile of import areas such as Pharr, which has a growing inventory of cold storage units to temporarily keep produce and other food.

There are even mid-term and long-term possibilities that would make a new Asia-Mexico-Texas trade route more viable, especially as an alternative to the west coast port congestion – rail shipments supplementing truck shipments and an innovative technology that could make rail and truck traffic seamlessly integrate into a multi-modal planner’s dream.

The Freight Shuttle Xpress is being designed in conjunction with Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute. It integrates what it calls “electric-powered transporters” capable of holding truck and shipping containers from one location to another. And in the best tradition of Walt Disney, these transporters would travel via a monorail system that could be built into the medians of existing highways. The approach would save on acquisition costs, including potential years-long eminent domain court fights for new right-of-way.

It would also alleviate growing traffic problems, particularly along Texas’s main street, the Interstate 35 corridor that cuts through the state. A 2016 studeer said that 2.2bn tons of freight moved through Texas, a figure projected to go up to 3.8bn tons by the year 2040.

The Freight Shuttle Xpress tried to raise investment funding several years ago to begin a project emanating from the Port of Houston, but did not raise enough money. But a route emanating from south Texas has the allure of attracting Mexican investment at a time when a backlog of goods due to the pandemic favors new ideas.

Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at borderscribe@gmail.com

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