Projects aimed to speed up wait times at Az/Mexico border

Three major Arizona-Mexico border stations, including one notorious for making truckers and tourists wait for hours – and even overnight – to cross back into Arizona, are finally expanding.

Construction is about to begin to enlarge the Mariposa Land Port of Entry at Nogales, the nation’s third-busiest border station, over the next 3 1/2 years, with the bulk of the money coming from federal-stimulus dollars.

A new station for trucks at San Luis, southeast of Yuma, is a few months from opening. And work is expected to begin soon on the Lukeville station that leads to Rocky Point.

Those improvements, which are expected to reduce wait times, along with a major seaport Mexico may build at Punta Colonet in Baja California, could boost tourism in Arizona, make the state more competitive and give it a large role in international trade, said Margie Emmermann, executive director of the Arizona Mexico Commission.

“Right now, one of the biggest obstacles to people using our region as a gateway and port of entry is the fact that we have a lot of outdated infrastructure and our process for using our ports of entry is just very inefficient,” she said.

Arizona companies did about $10.8 billion in trading by surface transportation with Mexico last year, ranking fifth among all the states, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Surface transportation includes trucks, rails and pipelines.

While the improvements will reduce wait times, Emmermann said there still could be waits because of extra security measures being taken since 9/11. Eventually, as inspectors get used to new technology being introduced, security delays could subside.

Depending on congressional funding, improvements also could come in the next few years to ports of entry at Douglas in southeastern Arizona and for a second border station at San Luis, known as San Luis 1, that is the principal entry point for hundreds of field workers who cross the border to work the produce fields in Yuma every winter.


A groundbreaking ceremony will be held today on a $213 millionproject to modernize and expand the Mariposa Port of Entry at Nogales for those people heading to San Carlos.

Built in 1973, the station has become the main port of entry for fresh produce from Mexico. It is one of two ports at Nogales. The smaller Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry is used primarily for residents, shoppers and workers crossing between Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora.

The Mariposa station is considered a linchpin in the infrastructure needed for international trade among the U.S., Mexico and Canada and is part of the Canada to Mexico Trade Corridor, or CANAMEX, according to an environmental-impact statement completed in June.

The station has been too small for a long time.

“It was designed for about 400 trucks a day,” said Luis Ramirez, a Phoenix consultant working with the commission on the project. “We reached that in 1983.”

Truckers have said that they have to wait up to eight hours or even overnight to cross into Arizona, he said. Emmermann said it took her 4 1/2 hours to re-enter Arizona in December at the Mariposa station.

During the peak of the growing season, from January to March, as many as 1,400 trucks a day pass through Nogales, the environmental statement said. Delays not only cost drivers frustration, time and money, but can mean produce arrives in stores in a riper state.

Pedestrian crossings have more than tripled since 2002, reaching about 557,000 in 2006, and are expected to grow almost 200 percent by 2025.The environmental report also said the station offers miserable working conditions. Inspectors in one building can work only 90-minute shifts because of heavy exhaust fumes. Some inspection-lane booths are not under a canopy, forcing inspectors to work in the blazing sun in the summer.

The station will continue to operate during construction but Ramirez said the challenge will be to not lengthen wait times.

If it wasn’t for about $199 million in stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the project would have been delayed a year, and it would have been done in phases, he said. Now, it can all be done at once. It is the largest single stimulus project outside Washington, D.C.


Brian Levin, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said a three-month project to expand the Lukeville station from three to five lanes could start in December or January.

Two of the lanes will be reversible to handle greater crowds going south into Mexico on holiday weekends to Puerto Penasco and then switched to handle crowds coming back.

Lukeville handles about 800 vehicles on weekdays and up to 6,000 on holiday weekends.

Levin said waits have been reduced to a maximum of two hours on holiday weekends and the expansion should reduce those further.

San Luis

As the first community in the state to get a modern border station, Yuma is already seeing more businesses and expects to reap wide economic benefits, said Julie Engel, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp.

“We do want to be known for our international capabilities and what we can do for the economy in the state,” she said.

Even though it is not as busy as the Nogales station, San Luis was worked on first because it had become so dangerous, said Emmermann, who said lobbying for the improvements began in the mid-1990s.

Trucks and cars often mingle with pedestrians, especially the hundreds of produce workers who cross daily in the Yuma area during the winter.

So the San Luis station was split into San Luis 1, for pedestrians and non-commercial traffic, and San Luis 2, for commercial traffic. The $42 million San Luis 2 station, southeast of Yuma, is essentially done and is waiting for a comparable station to be completed on the Mexican side. Both are expected to open by the beginning of 2010.

The Arizona station will have the latest technology, such as heat scanners that detect humans hiding in vehicles. It will be able to handle at least 500 trucks a day.

Engel said it could draw business from Nogales and other border choke points.

The Arizona Department of Transportation completed a new limited-access expressway, Arizona 195, from the station to Interstate 8, so heavy commercial traffic can bypass Yuma.

Engel said two companies have already moved into Yuma County and plan to build near the new port after it opens. A third company, a solar manufacturer, also has expressed interest.

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