Trade between the United States and Mexico continues to grow, with fresh fruits and vegetables accounting for an increasing percentage of goods coming into the U.S. via the Pharr Bridge.
As such, officials from Pharr Bridge and the city of Pharr are working to keep infrastructure up to date at the point of crossing to accommodate the increased commercial traffic and better facilitate the import of perishables.
Pharr Bridge Director Luis Bazan said that work on an expansion project for the bridge is underway, with plans to essentially add a second bridge comprised of four additional lanes for southbound traffic. The four lanes will traverse a three-mile span connecting the two countries and will feature two connector lanes/switching lanes, one on the U.S. side and one on Mexico’s side.
Bazan said Pharr Bridge celebrated the project by hosting an event on March 7 dubbed “History in the Making,” a bi-national forum that brought government officials from both countries to the bridge for a groundbreaking ceremony.
“It really was history in the making, because this was the first time we hosted officials from all the federal agencies in Mexico,” said Bazan. “We had all the major players from the U.S. and their counterparts from Mexico here to give an update on where things stand, and to highlight the importance of the bridge expansion for future trade.”
Bazan said while Pharr Bridge has all funding commitments in place for the project, the two countries are about a year apart on their timelines, with Mexico ready to go but the U.S. still awaiting environmental approvals.
“Our timeline is by the end of 2023 or in Q1 of 2024, so we’re about a year apart,” he said. “But we’re doing everything we can to accelerate the timeline. Our customers and the produce trade are really looking forward to it, as it will ease congestion and speed the time it takes for crossing. And it will make us a bigger and better competitor on a worldwide stage.”
Bazan said that Pharr Bridge has other infrastructure projects either underway or in the planning process.
One is a project called DAP 15, which adds two commercial entry lanes and two commercial exit lanes that lead directly into the import lot and allow all certified shipments to circumvent the import lot, exiting straight into the new Border Safety Inspection Facility. Named for the Donations Acceptance Program (DAP) and the year it was initiated (2015), Bazan said DAP 15 was due for completion March 23.
“DAP is part of U.S. Customs & Border Protection and was created in 2014 to align public and private partnerships to build out infrastructure at ports,” said Bazan. “We were the first ones to jump on board the program. Planning started in 2015, we broke ground in 2020 and now we are weeks from finishing it.”
Bazan said these dedicated lanes are reserved for commercial shipments and will allow more queuing of trucks, ultimately adding 30 percent more capacity.
Another project that is ongoing is DAP 16, which provides for a complete dock expansion for dry goods and a complete dock expansion for cold rooms.
“This is an important development, because with the dock expansion for cold rooms, we will be able to perform inspections on items such as leafy greens without having to break the cold chain, so shelf life can be preserved,” he said.
Additionally, Bazan said the facility will have a regional agriculture laboratory and training center, which will provide the speediest inspection service in the area, as well as training for future agriculture specialists and entomologists.
“We’ve modeled the facility on some of the newer, state-of-the-art cold rooms that have been constructed in the region, so we’ll have all the bells and whistles,” he said. “With the new ag lab, we’ll be able to take a sample right to the lab from the cold room without breaking the cold chain. Currently, when we have to analyze a sample for phytosanitary protocols, we have to send it out to another lab, or even to Washington, DC, and that can add a day or more to the process.”
Bazan said the “letting” phase, or the initial approval process, should be done by September or October 2023 and then the project will be up for bid.
“The beauty of these projects is that all the funding is in place, so we’re ready to go once the bid is awarded,” he said. “But one of our challenges is inflation. These projects take time, and costs in many cases have increased by 15-20 percent, so we’ll have to seek additional funding when needed as we move forward.”
Bazan said the city of Pharr has been extremely supportive, and he credits the city’s Grants Department with doing outstanding work to secure funding. But as much credit as he doles out, Bazan himself is a driving force behind improvements at Pharr Bridge.
Bazan joined Pharr Bridge in December 2013 as industrial development manager, serving as a “boots-on-the-ground” representative who worked with area businesses and investors to assess their needs.
“A year later, information about DAP came across my desk and I started looking into it and really dug in and started putting the pieces together,” he said. “We were able to take advantage of the program, and in fact our application was used as an example to others about how to write a solid application.”
Bazan said that set the tone for future projects at Pharr Bridge when he was named to his current position as bridge director in November 2015.
Another factor in Pharr Bridge’s operational philosophy is the fact that Bazan has a marketing background. “I’m always looking for creative and innovative ways to promote who we are and what we offer,” he said.
Shining the spotlight on the city of Pharr for its steadfast leadership and accomplishments has brought recognition to the bridge’s mission. Bazan said the city received an award last March from Quality Texas Foundation, which helps businesses, schools, government agencies and other institutions improve their performance.
“This award is only the beginning, as ‘Team Pharr’ seeks national recognition through the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and this in turn adds value and credibility to the bridge, an accolade we are all profoundly proud to have achieved,” he said. “We are committed to improving U.S. competitiveness and are consistently pursuing performance excellence.”
Bazan said the award is in line with how Pharr Bridge operates. “We run it like a business and are always striving for continuous improvement,” he said. “The bridge falls under the economic vitality of the city of Pharr’s Strategic Plan, and our main goal is to optimize bridge operations by increasing crossings, finishing projects and developing a long-range maintenance plan.”
Bazan said Pharr Bridge recently kicked off a series of workshops for its own strategic plan, which will be done by May 2023.
“We are just scratching the surface, but we want to hone in on specific industries,” he said. “We are going to conduct a survey of our internal and external stakeholders and find out what they want and need in the next five to 10 years.”
One of the needs that is already well known is that of additional warehouse and cold storage space in the region.
“Last year, we learned about the real deficit for warehousing and cold storage in the Valley, and we are looking to bring in more investment and ultimately increase our market share,” said Bazan.
As part of that effort, Bazan said Pharr Bridge is hosting its inaugural Industrial Warehouse Summit on April 20, which he said will be a one-day event with a breakout session and workshops.
“We’ll start with this one, but the idea is to hold a series of these, perhaps quarterly, working with developers, bankers and industry,” he said. “We need to be strategically positioned and ready to handle the growth and investment of the region. We’ve already gotten a great response, so we know we’re on to something.”
He added that Pharr Bridge has hosted monthly meetings since 2014 under the “Bridge Connect” moniker, whereby the trade is invited to a workshop that addresses various trade-centric topics pertaining to the crossing point. It’s just another way to engage with customers and area stakeholders to gain valuable feedback to improve operations at the bridge.
While most of these initiatives have come under Bazan’s watch, he is quick to point out that none of this would be possible without the support of the city of Pharr and the team at Pharr Bridge.
“We are truly thankful for the support we receive from the city of Pharr and the mayor,” he said. “I am also lucky to have such an outstanding staff at Pharr Bridge, who are passionate about our work and are committed to our mission.”
Photo: Luis Bazan (at the podium), director of Pharr Bridge, addresses attendees of the March 7 bi-national forum called ‘History in the Making,’ which drew government officials from the U.S. and Mexico to Pharr Bridge to learn the latest updates on the expansion project planned for the crossing.
By John Groh, publisher