While agreement at the federal level is rare these days, some officials are finding common ground on the stalled funding for the expansion of the Calexico West Port of Entry. They aren’t eager to discuss it in detail.
As the $98 million phase 1 of the port project nears completion, the $276 million for phase 2 was not included in the $1.3 trillion 2017-18 federal budget approved by Congress and signed March 23 by President Donald Trump.
Phase 2 port funding is included in Trump’s proposed budget for the 2018-19 federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, but anyone who observes national politics knows presidential budget offerings typically are dead on arrival in Congress.
Moreover, Congress has a poor recent track record of getting federal budgets promptly finalized—more dubious common ground—opting instead for strings of temporary budget deals pocked by near or actual federal shutdowns. Continuing what has become an ugly tradition, the latest final budget was signed into law 174 days late and delays included a brief shutdown.
U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, whose district includes Calexico, the surrounding Imperial County and part of San Diego County, trumpeted in a press release a March 16 letter in which he and two other fellow San Diego-area Congress members asked the General Services Administration to keep the phase 2 port funding in the 2018-19 budget. That, however, was before the 2017-18 funding bill was signed.
Contacted on March 30, a week after the new budget became law, Vargas El Centro field representative Tomas Oliva provided a brief comment. Then, on April 2, he referred a reporter to Vargas’ Washington, D.C., office where an official responding via e-mail later that day also issued a brief comment and asked the reporter to contact GSA for further detail. The reporter was seeking insight on the funding outlook and what could be done to ensure it survives the budget process.
The GSA is the federal agency responsible for the construction, management and preservation of federal buildings, according to its website, gsa.gov.
Asked via e-mail for comment on the omission of the phase 2 funding from the recently passed federal budget, Andra P. Higgs, public affairs officer for the GSA Pacific Rim Region, wrote in response on April 3, “The Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 budget proposal included full funding for Phase II. The final FY 2017 budget did not include funding for the project. GSA does not comment on which projects Congress omits from the final authorization.”
Higgs was also asked if phase 2 construction could be delayed and/or go over budget if it is not funded by the time phase 1 is completed, thus losing a possible advantage of having seamless work with both phases.
“When Phase II receives funding, GSA will be ready to complete the project. Any costs associated with the timing of construction will be reflected in the budget request,” Higgs wrote, while confirming phase 1 is expected to be completed by year’s end.
The phase 2 funding was not included in the 2017-18 budget because the measure was only comprised of funds necessary to get through the current fiscal year, Oliva said on March 30.
In an April 2 e-mail, Dayanara Ramirez of Vargas’ Washington office stated the GSA still expects Phase 1 to be completed by October 2018 and that Vargas continues to work to secure funding for phase 2. She deferred further comment to the GSA.
However, Vargas’ staff declined to specifically discuss the possibility of Congress again bypassing phase 2 funding or what might be done to prevent that.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official at the West Port said the agency, which operates ports of entry nationwide, is not commenting on the phase 2 project. A reporter asked if the agency had any comment about the funding situation for phase 2, whether it would have an impact on the public and how CBP might accommodate such an impact.
“Anything on the construction site needs to go through GSA right now,” Jorge Soberanes, port public affairs officer, said in response to each question and provided contact information for Higgs.
Despite the uncertainty, local officials were franker than their federal counterparts, remaining resolute and hopeful the port funding will survive the certain budget maelstrom to come.
“I think there’s a level of optimism it will be funded in 2018-19 because it fits with the (Trump) Administration’s mission of more (border) security and new technology,” said Mark Baza, executive director of the Imperial County Transportation Commission that plans and finances major local road projects.
According gsa.gov, phase one consists of five southbound privately owned vehicle lanes and a southbound bridge over the New River, ten northbound POV inspections lanes with primary and secondary inspection canopies, booths and inspection equipment, a new headhouse, and sitework to accommodate those facilities on the sloping site.
The GSA reports phase 2 will include additional sitework, demolition of the existing port building, a new pedestrian processing facility, administrative offices, five southbound POV inspection lanes with canopies and booths, and six additional northbound POV inspection lanes.
Baza noted any delay will affect pedestrian traffic across the international border.
“Folks are waiting one to two hours to cross by foot,” he said of the needs phase 2 would address.
He added, however, the additional vehicle lanes in phase 2 would further improve the flow of traffic flow at the congested border crossing. Even though all commercial truck traffic was moved to the Calexico East Port when it opened in 1996, the West, or downtown, port remains beset by horrific wait times for northbound vehicles that can approach several hours at peak periods.
The letter by Vargas and his colleagues was the latest to articulate the damage those delays do to local commerce.
Additionally, in an interview last fall, Baza noted, “There was a $1 billion loss in Imperial County due to delays and $1.3 billion on the Mexican side, according to a study done in 2012, based on a 45-minute delay. We know it is higher than that now.”
The West Port daily processes 15,000-20,000 northbound vehicle crossings and 20,000 northbound pedestrian crossings, the GSA website states.
Now, Calexico-area officials warn delays in phase 2 will further harm an already fragile Calexico economy. The city faces a budget deficit and is losing valuable sales-tax revenue and jobs with the closure of the Toys R Us and JC Penney stores.
“I think it’s the wrong move on behalf of the federal government, especially since it’s already been started and Calexico as it is needs that infrastructure to be finished so it can make the city more appealing to outside investors and to generate more jobs and tax income for city hall,” said Calexico businessman David Romero.
Romero and Calexico Mayor Maritza Hurtado criticized Trump for supporting the construction of a border wall while existing infrastructure is imperiled.
“Hopefully, the Trump Administration will realize that maybe the wall isn’t such a great idea, that maybe we should focus on the facilities that are required because the administrative part of securing the border has to do with facilities, such as the one we have here that is in bad shape as it requires to be modernized,” Hurtado said.
Imperial County Supervisor John Renison, whose district includes Calexico, acknowledged that while Phase 2 will have to wait until the next federal budget, Congress could still reverse that commitment.
“That would be a slap in the face. It just seems illogical, really disheartening, if it’s not included in the budget,” said Renison. “Long delays result in thousands, if not millions, of lost revenues due to commutes on both sides of the border.”
Should Phase 2 somehow be dropped from the coming year’s budget, Renison pledged the area’s Congressional delegation will put all pressure to bear to ensure it is restored.
“It’s a Herculean task,” said Renison of that prospect. “It’s not likely until August when a window of opportunity opens after all the extensions and amendments (to the 2018-19 budget) are complete. But it’s up to us to come up with strong arguments to make a case for Phase 2.”