Local assistance urged for ports of entry

Schwarzenegger vows to raise issue to Congress

PUERTO PEÑASCO, Sonora – The nation’s top border official said businesses that want to speed the flow of goods and people across the border should put their money where their mouths are.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged the backups for cars and trucks trying to enter the United States from Mexico. It can take hours to get across the border.

Chertoff said his agency is doing more, including adding more lanes at existing ports of entry and developing high-tech approaches to speed crossings.

But Chertoff, in an exclusive interview with Capitol Media Services, said the federal government has only so much cash to increase the size of existing ports of entry and build new ones. He said local dollars might be the only way to make an immediate and significant difference

“The communities down here and the business folks down here are going to have to get together and decide how they’re going to finance the infrastructure, how they’re going to deal with the environmental issues,” he said.

Chertoff’s comments came in response to complaints about the long wait times at ports of entry from governors on both sides of the border at their annual conference.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano complained that the number and size of border crossings have not kept pace with the explosive growth of the region, a situation she said sometimes results in a “parking lot” on the southern side of the border.

“A lot of our border infrastructure went in in the mid-’70s,” she said. “Arizona was a much smaller state then. And California has the same problem.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it “inexcusable” that it can take up to five hours to get into the United States. He said it’s more than a problem of inconvenience.

“We know that this is a huge hazard for the people’s health when you have cars backed up by the thousands and thousands every day throughout the whole day,” he said.

Schwarzenegger, who took over at the end of the two-day meeting as president of the border governors group, promised to make this a top issue during his yearlong tenure “to make sure that we go together as governors to Washington and that Washington knows they need to do something about it.”

Nuevo Leon Gov. José González complained that exports from his country to the United States have increased 400 percent since 1994 while imports from the U.S. are up 300 percent. But he said that the number and size of border crossings has not kept pace.

Eugenio Elorduy, governor of Baja California, called it “intolerable” that people who need to go to work each day, go to school or simply want to visit the United States are forced to sit in traffic for hours at a time. The crossing at Tijuana in his state is one of the worst along the border.

He said that Mexican President Felipe Calderón has promised to help with resources from his government to increase the number of ports of entry.

“Now, what we need is for the U.S. government to do its part,” Elorduy said.

Chertoff said he understands the financial obligations of the federal government.

“But the budget competes also with things like collapsing bridges, highways in the interior,” he explained. “So if I were interested in getting things moving quickly, I’d come forward as local communities and local businesses to put something on the table and say, ‘We can do this, and maybe the federal government can do something else.’ ”

He said there is precedent for this, set by some communities in Texas.

“They did get the business community to work with local government to actually fund a big part of the expansion of infrastructure,” he said.

www.azcentral.com

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