Presidio bridge construction waiting for governor’s approval

PRESIDIO — At last week’s city council meeting, Mayor John Ferguson addressed a stewing source of frustration in town: stalled construction on the American side of the Presidio International Bridge. The binational effort recently ground to a halt on the southbound Texas side, requiring customs agents on the busy bridge to continue direct traffic through a one-lane stretch. 

Local and state officials started talking about expanding the bridge around 2011. Though the Presidio Port of Entry is categorized as a “small” crossing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it’s steadily growing. The Texas Department of Transportation’s U.S. 67 Master Plan, compiled in 2020, noted that at peak traffic times, southbound bridge traffic could back up four miles on the highway. 

With news of a prospective diesel transport operation coming to Presidio and pre-existing frustrations about the opening of a route for transmigrantes, opening up two southbound lanes to assist freight vehicles crossing into Mexico is a top priority. Much of the hold-up is due to confusion about which agency is responsible for which aspect of the project. Most international bridges — like the port of entry in Laredo, which sees around 5.1 million personal vehicles back and forth across the bridge each year — are owned and administered by a private interest group or by the city they’re located in. 

That’s not the case in Presidio, where the southbound lanes of the bridge are owned by the state of Texas. It’s the only bridge of its kind in the state — as Presidio City Administrator Brad Newton is fond of explaining, Presidio is “TxDOT’s only child” when it comes to border crossings. The northbound lanes are administered by Mexico’s Caminos y Puentes Federales, an agency whose name translates to “International Roads and Bridges.” 

Yet another pair of federal entities administer customs operations on the bridge. On the Mexican side, that’s the Servicio de Administración Tributara, which can best be described as the Mexican version of the Internal Revenue Service. U.S. Customs and Border Protection oversees northbound operations on the Presidio bridge, and is primarily responsible for directing traffic through the one-lane stretch of bridge. Over the past decade, it was decided that construction costs and logistics should be the Americans’ responsibility on the southbound side of the bridge, and the Mexicans’ on the northbound stretch. 

With so many stakeholders and so many moving parts, it’s no surprise that there have been delays in the process of expanding the bridge to include two lanes on each side. Eleven years later, though, officials, shipping companies and private citizens have started to wonder: what’s the hold-up? 

Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez, who has held his post for about 10 months, has repeatedly expressed frustration about the delays. While trying to settle into his new position, he’s frequently approached by Presidio officials and residents alike who want to complain about long waits on the bridge. “Regarding those three- to seven- to ten-hour waits that we have on the bridge — I don’t want to hear it,” he said at a city meeting back in January. “Because why? Because you guys never finished the bridge. How can you help me help you?”  

Despite feeling exasperated, he expressed his appreciation for the community. “Let’s all do this together and help each other out. I love this place. It’s great. But we’re not helping each other out here.” 

At Monday’s meeting, Presidio Mayor John Ferguson reported that bridge expansion had been stalled by TxDOT for over a year, and that Mexico “had substantially finished their half” of the project. “I’ve heard lots of various versions of what’s going on,” he said, and decided to reach out to TxDOT for an official update. Ferguson read aloud an email he received in response from Blanca Serrano-Rivera of TxDOT’s regional office in El Paso. 

“I understand you have some questions regarding the continuation of construction on the U.S. side of the Presidio Port of Entry,” reads the email. “The district is currently in coordination with TxDOT divisions to finalize the Memo of Understanding for the bridge. The Memo of Understanding requires signatures from the Governor so that bridge construction may continue. We are hopeful that we will have final approval for signatures in the next couple of months, so that we may re-initiate construction. Once we have approval of the Memo of Understanding, construction should be initiated within 45 to 60 days after that, which is two more months and concluded approximately four months from initiation. So we’re talking eight months there.”

City Attorney Rod Ponton had reached out to Caroline Mays, head of international affairs for TxDOT, and had received a slightly different answer: “It’s waiting on the governor’s desk — it’s really just been sitting around for a long time,” he reported. 

Presidio City Council decided to draft a letter together to Governor Abbott’s office, hoping that the extra push would help fast-track the needed signature. With a potential eight month process for full operation on the bridge, time is of the essence — port officials would like to see everything completed by November and December, when Día de los Muertos and the Christmas holidays create record-smashing wait times on the bridge. “If we do it right, if it gets done this year, your traffic will be a lot better,” Port Director Chavez said. 

Neither the governor’s office nor TxDOT responded to requests for comment by press time.