MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — A 30-day extension of travel restrictions at international ports will especially hurt South Texas communities, which are reeling from a lack of traffic and low revenue at international bridges, officials said.
Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf on Monday said the Trump administration was continuing travel restrictions until at least May 20 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Wolf on March 20 announced that only essential travel would be allowed to enter the United States from Canada and Mexico.
The restrictions have cut in half the number of personal, commercial and pedestrian traffic at all U.S. land ports, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told Border Report. Nationwide, traffic at land-border ports of entries was down by a count of 490,358, or 50.4% a day from March 16 to April 16. Privately-owned vehicle (POV) traffic decreased by 132,913 vehicles per day or 58.14%. And pedestrian traffic has decreased by 91,108 pedestrians per day or 73.27%, a CBP official said.
In South Texas, pedestrian bridge traffic is down about 80%; personal vehicles are down about 70% and commercial traffic is down by as much as 40%, bridge owners and bridge managers for municipalities told Border Report.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who is chairman of the McAllen-Hidalgo International Toll Bridge Board of Trustees, said pedestrian traffic at the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge is down by 80%; and personal vehicle traffic at the Anzalduas International Bridge, which connects the city of Mission with Reynosa, Mexico, is down about 70%.
Darling said that between 6,000 and 7,000 people used to walk across the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge each day, but since the temporary travel ban was put in place, there are fewer than 1,000 people now crossing daily. His city of 130,000 residents is estimating losses of $4 million from the 30-day shutdown, which could be doubled with the latest extension.
“People with visitor’s visas still won’t be able to come across. But essential purposes will,” Darling said. “There’s not too much we can do about it.”
In Cameron County, on the Gulf Coast, travel at land ports is down about 60%, Josue Garcia Jr., bridge director for Cameron County said.
“We’re down all the way around: the commercial, the POV, are down, pedestrians are down,” Garcia said. “It is pretty sad to see what we’re seeing but it is the reality.”
Last summer, they were planning to expand the Gateway International Bridge, which currently has a reduction in pedestrian traffic of 50%. Between 3,000-4,000 people cross daily from Brownsville, Texas, into Matamoros, Mexico, which is half of the 8,000 who used to cross daily before the travel ban.
Gateway also is the bridge that asylum-seekers living in a tent city in Matamoros would use to attend their immigration court hearings at the judicial tent city in Brownsville. But the Executive Office for Immigration Review, under the U.S. Department of Justice, has postponed all non-detained immigration court hearings until May 1.
“Certainly this is a very delicate situation because you don’t want COVID-19 crossing borders but looking at it from our perspective, we definitely want more crossings but we understand,” Garcia said.
The current travel ban agreed to with the three countries “is part of a North American approach to stop the spread of the virus,” DHS says.
However, bridge owners and managers say more coordination is needed to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Sam Vale, a majority shareholder in the private Rio Grande City-Camargo International Bridge, which connects Starr County, Texas, with Ciudad Camargo, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, says Mexico and the United States aren’t necessarily operating under the same set of rules. Namely what is deemed “essential” worker for one country, isn’t always for the other. That especially affects the travel of businessmen who are used to crossing the Rio Grande daily.
There also has been a slow down in industrial production. Vale gives the example of Toyota trucks produced in a plant in San Antonio that he says sometimes “cross the border anywhere from eight to 12 times before the products are finished.”
“It’s cheaper from them to transport between Monterrey (Mexico) and San Antonio than from one place in Mexico to another trade zone in Mexico, because those rules are pretty complicated,” Vale said. “But if those things are not coordinated, then that affects the business travel.”
The biggest hit that the South Texas region is taking right now, South Texas officials say, is retail and tourism travel. Many Mexicans regularly crossed from northern towns to go to the malls, restaurants and public beaches, which are now all closed.
Darling said that although his city’s coffers are taking a hit at the bridges, their utility revenue is up because more people are working from home as Hidalgo County still has shelter-in-place restrictions. And that is helping to drive up water and electric revenue.
“As long as it doesn’t rain and people are paying more attention to their lawns and water a lot then that’s helping a bit right now,” Darling said.
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