MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Unless Congress acts upon it, legislation that border lawmakers say is essential to allowing the federal government to accept public and private donations to help with expensive expansion and upkeep of land ports of entry could expire this month.
A bipartisan group of border lawmakers are pushing for Congress to approve the Donations Acceptance Program Reauthorization Act of 2020, which would allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. General Services Administration to continue receiving these gifts in order to renovate, expand and improve infrastructure and technology at U.S. ports of entry.
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, along with Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez, of Texas, Xochitl Torres Small, of New Mexico, are pushing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass the measure before current legislation ends on Dec. 16, Cuellar told Border Report on Friday.
“Why this Donation Acceptance Program is important is that it creates partnerships between the public and the private sector and federal and local entities to do improvements at the ports of entry,” Cuellar said via a phone call from Washington, D.C.
“We cannot say, ‘Well, the federal government does not have the resources’ and then wait and wait and wait. So this allows us to move on some projects when a local entity — public or private — wants to help in that aspect,” he said.
“I am encouraged that we can come together in a bipartisan way to reauthorize the Donations Acceptance Program. By extending this program, we are protecting ongoing public-private partnerships, spurring job growth, and strengthening the trade and tourism economies of border communities,” Gonzalez said.
His office said the legislation was filed Thursday. And Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, told Border Report that he has also requested language be inserted in the upcoming federal budget bill to ensure receipt of these donations continue well past this year.
This type of legislation has been in existence since 2014 and has allowed several multi-million dollar public and private partnership projects that have resulted in international bridge expansion and added lanes, as well as increased camera technology and lighting at several ports from California to Texas.
In South Texas, there are seven ongoing bridge projects involving $61.5 million in donations that Cuellar said could be jeopardized without the ability of the federal government to continue to accept real property, personal property, money, and non-personal service donations.
Nearly $54 million have been donated for two projects at the Anzalduas International Bridge, which connects the town of Mission to Reynosa, Mexico in the state of Tamaulipas.
In 2015, the City of McAllen invested over $1 million of city funds to expand two additional southbound lanes on the bridge and added an inspection station on Mexican soil. The bridge’s $2.8 million expansion project, which is still ongoing, has involved federal, state, and local resources and resulted in the addition of two more northbound lanes for traffic coming from Tamaulipas into South Texas. And in fiscal 2020, $272,583 was gifted for additional lane expansion.
Cuellar says if the current law expires then this project and many others “could be impacted.”
Other ports of entry that have benefitted greatly include the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico, which in fiscal year 2018 received a $26,000 sidewalk upgrade, and in FY 2019 began a $1.5 million pavement extension.
Two projects totaling $3.1 million have been completed at the Los Indios International Bridge in San Benito, Texas. A $3 million expansion of the Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates in Brownsville began in fiscal 2018.
“Not even four years after my bill to establish this program became law, multiple Texas ports of entry have utilized public-private partnerships with great success,” Cornyn said in a statement. “Without this extension, the program will expire, associated construction on new lanes and inspection booths will come to a halt, and ports of entry will have to return to competing for scarce federal resources already stretched because of the pandemic.”
Torres Small calls it a “crucial program” for “border communities and the stakeholders invested in their success,” which “allows maximize trade opportunities along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
This has “a huge economic impact on the hardworking folks in our communities along the border and the surrounding areas who rely on ports of entry to feed and care for their families,” said U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, whose district includes over 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, more than any other Member of Congress.