March 15, 2023 717 PM
PRESIDIO — Last week, the city and county of Presidio passed a joint resolution expressing support for the creation of an independent port authority at the Presidio International Bridge. The new port authority would be separate from the county and city government and would have the power to charge tolls, which officials hope would generate revenue to spend on further improvements.
Local officials hope that the new port authority will signal a fresh start for the bridge, which — despite years of construction delays — is steadily growing in trade and traffic. County Judge Joe Portillo has since traveled to Austin to take meetings with state lawmakers, whose approval could fast-track the proposal for consideration by the end of this year’s legislative session.
The bridge is the only international crossing owned and operated by TxDOT — all the other bridges in Texas are either privately owned or run by a port authority similar to the one Presidio County is proposing. The new port authority would technically be a taxing entity, similar to the Big Bend Regional Hospital District and Presidio Municipal Development District, both of which have the power to collect small percentages of local sales tax.
Locals have enjoyed some benefits to TxDOT owning the bridge: the city and county don’t have to raise money up front for construction and administrative costs. The Presidio International Bridge is also one of very few international crossings that doesn’t charge a toll. The Aduana de Ojinaga side of the bridge commands a modest fee to cross back into the United States, but the State of Texas doesn’t collect anything from Mexico-bound travelers.
But in the past few years, the downsides of the bridge being owned by TxDOT have also reared their heads. The bridge has been operating at partial capacity since 2018, when the ribbon was cut on a project to expand the bridge with an additional two lanes. The construction has since been consistently hamstrung by the governor’s office after becoming, in the words of one local official, “a political hammer.”
Despite all the background noise, Portillo insists that the push to create a port authority isn’t a political statement and it isn’t about imposing a tax. Instead, he hopes that it will simply allow the port to generate its own money that can be spent on improvements and encouraging the growth of business that will have trickle-down effects benefiting county residents. “If we can find good, consistent customers to use the port of entry to bring their goods north or south, that creates jobs, it helps the local economy,” he explained.
What about the existing Presidio International Port Authority?
In the final months of previous County Judge Cinderela Guevara’s term, there was a lot of hubbub and confusion surrounding an entity called the Presidio International Port Authority (PIPA), a local government corporation tasked with serving as a steering council for bridge operations and a liaison between local government and TxDOT.
PIPA was originally created to advocate for the creation of a toll bridge between Presidio and Ojinaga that would pay the costs for the creation of a parallel southbound two-lane bridge — two proposals that sound eerily similar to the latest round of bridge proposals. Those plans were scrapped in 2017 when the Trump administration rubber-stamped a presidential permit authorizing state-funded construction to expand the bridge.
In its waning days, PIPA collected funds from the city and county of Presidio to offer a stipend and cover transportation costs for advisor Jake Giesbrecht, owner of Bullet Transport Services, a cross-border trucking company. Giesbrecht’s expertise and connections with Mexican government officials put him in a prime position to offer advice on bridge-related matters.
At a meeting in August, Presidio City Council opted to suspend its annual payments into the PIPA pot, totalling around $14,000 to $16,000 annually. The call to divest from the organization came in the wake of the revelation that the local government corporation had been, tax-wise, in a state “forfeited existence” since 2018, essentially meaning that PIPA had not been filing taxes.
Some local officials were not happy to discover that taxpayer money had been funding an organization without a clear financial track record. “We didn’t have a lot of accountability as far as documentation on the funding we were providing for it,” said Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas.
In light of Presidio’s decision to suspend payments, previous County Judge Cinderela Guevara opted to dissolve it altogether. “We’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish,” she said.
Precinct 4 County Commissioner David Beebe regularly attended meetings of the previous iteration of PIPA, and voted in support of starting fresh. “This will be more official — this will be for real,” he explained. “This will be formed by the legislature and be an actual governmental body.”
That “actual governmental body” will have more structure than the previous PIPA — it will be formed by the state legislature, which maintains the sole power and responsibility to dissolve it. “The previous one was, for lack of a better term, an interlocal agreement,” Judge Portillo explained. “The city and county came together and put money into it strictly for [Giesbrecht’s] travel,” he said.
Despite the controversy, Beebe and Portillo maintained that PIPA had been a net positive and that Giesbrecht had offered a wealth of knowledge to the county’s port operations. “Hopefully we’ll take all of the good work that the last group did and multiply it times 100,” he said.
Who stands to benefit?
Local officials hope that the new Presidio International Port Authority will be an economic driver both for the city and county governments — and for residents that will benefit from an expected uptick in bridge traffic. Despite the traffic snarls and construction delay, the bridge is growing — American statistics via Customs and Border Protection estimate a 16% yearly increase in bridge traffic, and the Aduana de Ojinaga reports similar numbers of around 23%.
Generating money specifically earmarked for bridge improvements would allow urgent needs to be addressed in a timely fashion, rather than petitioning the state and federal governments for assistance. “We have a lot of visitors and we welcome them, but they do have an impact,” Judge Portillo said of general wear and tear on the bridge. “It’s only fair for them to help us offset some of the costs so that everybody pays a fair share.”
Making the port a smoother and more efficient experience for commercial drivers could exponentially grow business on the bridge. Portillo offered examples from other border towns, including Del Rio — which built a convention center with revenue from its port — and Laredo, which crosses in a day what Presidio crosses in 14 months. “I’m not saying we should become Laredo — I’m just saying there’s a little meat left on that bone,” he said.
The push to make the bridge more profitable comes on the heels of concerns about local government funding. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a proposal to dramatically slash property taxes — the backbone of both the Presidio and Marfa ISD school districts’ budgets, as well as the county’s.
Presidio City Administrator Pablo Rodriguez also hoped that bridge traffic would also pay into the City of Presidio through sales tax generated by local businesses — the only potential increase in revenue projected this year is through regulating game rooms. “The rest is very minimal,” he explained. “I look at this as an opportunity to utilize a resource that’s already there.”
Expanding customs operations on the bridge is a murkier process, but successfully expanding the range of products that can be crossed would dramatically increase business. One of the current hold-ups is the fact that the bridge doesn’t have a full-time USDA inspector.
In order to cross agricultural products, inspectors with a variety of specific certifications are needed to give produce, dairy and other money-making imports the green light. “It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing,” Commissioner Beebe explained. “We don’t have enough traffic, therefore we don’t have a USDA station. “That also means that [the federal government] thinks, well, that port doesn’t have a USDA station, therefore they only need one truck lane.”
The lack of an inspector undercuts local business potential. Isela Nuñez, general manager of Pro Customs Brokers, says that she has to turn away a lot of potential clients because of the limitations on what can cross the bridge — currently, the bulk of agricultural products bound for the Permian Basin and Dallas-Fort Worth area have to cross through El Paso. Allowing these products to cross through Presidio instead would substantially cut down on transportation costs.
Beyond the lack of certified inspectors, Nuñez says that there’s another problem — there aren’t the proper facilities for holding agricultural products while they’re waiting to be processed. “I can only cross a little bit right now because we don’t have a cold room,” she explained. “Anything with an expiration date — like dairy products — requires cold storage that we don’t have.”
She said that local business owners would likely be happy to pay a toll — if that meant they were able to expand the range of products that could be imported and exported through Presidio. “It opens huge opportunities for us — obviously more crossing comes with more profit,” she said. “There are currently four customs brokers in Presidio. We can’t all fight over the same clients.”
For now, many of these changes feel far away — if Portillo is able to successfully convince state lawmakers to consider the creation of a new Port Authority, more answers may come by the fall. If not, the proposal will have to wait two years until the next legislative session. “If all the chips fall in the right place, we’re looking at early September,” he said.