State reps introduce bills to create new port authority

Construction continues on the Presidio International Bridge “a little bit ahead of schedule,” according to County Judge Joe Portillo. Photo courtesy of Joe Portillo.

AUSTIN — Last Friday, Eddie Morales — the Big Bend region’s state representative — filed a bill that could lead to the creation of an official Presidio International Port Authority (PIPA). State Senator César Blanco filed a mirror bill in the state senate, and now local officials are waiting for results. 

As one of his first major projects as county judge, Joe Portillo petitioned both the Presidio City Council and Presidio County Commissioners Court to support the creation of a port authority. PIPA would be a self-governing taxing entity that could generate money to support the bridge — which is currently owned and administered by TxDOT, subjecting all improvement projects to state approval. 

The ultimate goal of the project is to grow trade on the Presidio International Bridge. Ports in El Paso and Laredo make up the bulk of cross-border trade in Texas — but as trade booms, businesses are looking for alternate routes. 

“Many ports are reaching saturation, so there has to be alternative ways,” Portillo said. “We’re a border community too — and one that has historically been underutilized.”

The county had previously funded another organization called the Presidio International Port Authority, but cut off funding in 2022. Portillo stressed that the two organizations were the same in name only. “The other one was more of an interlocal agreement — they put money in it strictly for travel,” he explained.

The hypothetical new PIPA would have a board of stakeholders including city and county officials, business owners and experts in cross-border trade. In creating a port authority, PIPA will be a government enterprise, but will not institute new taxes or pull from the tax pool. “This is another entity to generate funds — not through property taxes, not through a traditional sales tax — but through a toll,” he explained.

The Mexican side of the bridge currently charges a modest toll of 27 pesos to cross the bridge into the United States, but Mexico-bound vehicles don’t pay anything. The subject of a toll has been thrown around — and attracted controversy — over the past decade, but was officially scrapped in 2017 when the Trump administration signed a permit for construction to begin on the bridge. “The toll makes it so that those who pass through pay their fair share,” Portillo explained. 

Discussions in local meetings about the new port authority have quickly snowballed into action. Portillo met with both of Presidio’s state reps shortly after statements of support were signed by the city and county governments, and both offices introduced their own bills on Friday. 

Portillo said that the energy around the bills on the state level was positive — the senator, the representative and the county judge were all born and raised on the border, offering a unique perspective. “Senator Blanco is a border kid, I’m a border kid, Representative Gonzales is a border kid,” he said. “We grew around entryways into Mexico and understand the importance of being able to manage that and help it grow.”

The bills’ official language designates the new PIPA as a “special district” and will be introduced as a local law. Despite the relatively small scope, Portillo anticipates that there will be support across the state — transport of goods by truck and rail could someday connect Presidio on a daily basis to San Antonio, Dallas and beyond. “I really see this as a positive from one end of Texas to the other,” he said. 

Despite movement in the Legislature, there’s likely to be long stretches of sitting and waiting ahead for county officials. The bills have been forwarded to committee, and it will likely be a few weeks before they hit the floors of their respective chambers. The current legislative session ends in May — if the bill is passed, it will take effect in September. 

Senator Blanco felt that because the bill was requested and submitted at the tail end of the session, there was a chance it might not become law — meaning that formal request for the designation of a port authority would have to wait two more years to be resubmitted.  

His office stressed that — no matter how this session shakes out — it wouldn’t be the end of negotiations about the future of the Presidio Port of Entry. I look forward to continuing the conversation with local stakeholders and TxDOT to determine the need and feasibility of creating a new port authority and the impact it may have on the region and local economy,” he wrote in a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel.

The rest of the details — who will sit on the board, how a toll will be implemented, if ownership of the bridge should be transferred — are still up in the air. “We’re trying to be as patient as we can,” Portillo said.