For those Imperial County residents consoling themselves with thoughts the well-publicized discord in Congress is a far-off conflict, the renovation at the Calexico West Port of Entry slices in with a jolt of reality.
“We’re at the federal government’s mercy,” conceded Jesus Escobar, a customs broker and Calexico City Council member who soon will move on to a seat on the county Board of Supervisors following his Nov. 6 win over incumbent John Renison.
The $98-million phase 1 of the project, designed to improve the flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic through the bustling downtown port, is completed, according to the federal General Services Administration overseeing the project.
However, the $276 million for phase 2 remains ensnarled in the Washington, D.C., labyrinth. It is an environment chronically fraught with uncertainty and perhaps more so now as Democrats prepare to again take over the House of Representatives eager to counter punch their Republican colleagues and their boisterous leader, President Donald J. Trump.
The phase 2 funding has hung in limbo for months as Congress and Trump wrangle through the budget process for the 2018-19 federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
However, movement could come soon, Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter, county intergovernmental relations director, stated in a Nov. 14 e-mail in response to an inquiry from this newspaper.
“In regards to Phase II funding for the Port of Entry, we will likely not have any update until after December 6, but we’re hoping sooner,” she wrote. “Congress reconvened from recess this week for a lame duck session and the remainder of the budget is expected to be their number one priority.”
In the budget cycle to date five of the 12 fiscal 2018-19 appropriations bills have been completed, Terrazas-Baxter stated.
“The other seven bills are running on a continuing resolution through December 7, including the Financial Services appropriations package where funding for the Port of Entry project is anticipated to be included,” she explained.
A continuing resolution is a temporary funding measure Congress can use to fund the federal government at current funding levels for a limited amount of time in order to avoid a full or partial government shutdown.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, whose district includes Imperial County, is fresh off an easy re-election run but was mum on the port project.
“Unfortunately, the Congressman is unavailable for comment – my apologies,” Annie Goyzueta, a press aide for Vargas in Washington wrote in a Nov. 15 e-mail in response to an inquiry from this newspaper.
When asked in a follow-up e-mail to clarify if that meant Vargas just will not be available by the deadline for this story or if he is not commenting on the issue at this time, Goyzueta did not immediately respond.
In a newsletter mailed to constituents over the summer he reported, “…I’m currently working in Congress to secure $276 million in funding for Phase 2.”
Phase 2 of the port project will include additional sitework, demolition of the existing port building, a new pedestrian processing facility, administrative offices, five southbound inspection lanes with canopies and booths, and six additional northbound inspection lanes.
Phase 1, which the GSA reported was completed in September, includes five southbound lanes and a southbound bridge over the New River, 10 northbound 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.
Both phases are seen locally as vital to the area’s economy. Opened in 1974, the port is widely considered outdated and unable to handle the daily average of up to 20,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians who use it to enter the U.S. Northbound delays can stretch for several hours at peak times.
County and Calexico officials advocating for the improvement cite studies concluding delays cost millions in the time added for crossing, fuel and the dampening effect in which many simply no longer cross the border due to the delays.
“It’s significant,” Escobar said of the need for phase 2. “They’re tearing down the old port for a new pedestrian crossing. The sooner it gets done, the better.”
Shoppers coming on foot from Mexicali to downtown Calexico have for decades been a driver of the local economy but many feel that has ebbed in recent years, in part due to border delays.
County officials, including the departing Renison, have lobbied hard for phase 1 and 2, including on several trips to Washington. Escobar, who takes office in January, vowed that will continue.
“The county needs to push on our representatives. It’s the only thing we can do,” he said.
Trump is an ally in the battle. He included the $276 million for phase 2 in his 2018-19 budget proposal to Congress. However, presidential budgets never stay in tact as Congress develops the final version through exhaustive and lengthy political battles.
As such, while the House went with Trump’s amount, the Senate proposed slashing it to $175 million, Terrazas-Baxter stated in a July report to the county board. The hope, she added, was that a compromise would fall in between.
Funding for phase 2 was left out of the 2017-18 federal budget Trump signed in March 2018. Shortly thereafter, federal officials, including Vargas’ office and Andra P. Higgs, a GSA public affairs officer, had no comment on why.
The GSA website simply states phase 2 is unfunded. There is no further information on monies for it.
In regard to sparse information on phase 2 funding, little has changed over the months as the fate of a vital infrastructure project hangs in the balance in a deeply divided Congress. While there is hope phase 1 will improve border congestion, the uncertainty over phase 2 is a dark cloud.
Asked what would happen if phase 2 is not funded, Escobar lamented, “Border wait times won’t be improved. It’s a huge blow for people that cross on a daily basis.”
Even if funding does come, he added patience will be needed.
“It’s a three- to five-year process,” to finish phase 2, Escobar said.