U.S.-Mexico Border:

Better Planning, Coordination Needed to Handle Growing Commercial Traffic

NSIAD-00-25: Published: Mar 3, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 3, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the increased trade activity and traffic congestion problems being experienced by the southwest border states, focusing on the: (1) nature of commercial truck traffic congestion at the southwest border; (2) factors that contribute to congestion; and (3) actions, including programs and funding, that are being taken to address these problems.

GAO noted that: (1) increased commercial truck traffic and the associated congestion at some border crossings, particularly older crossings that were built in downtown areas such as Laredo and El Paso, Texas, have taxed border community infrastructure; (2) lines of trucks--many of them empty--waiting to enter the United States can run up to several miles during peak periods in early to late afternoon, and the idling trucks contribute to air pollution and safety concerns in some major border cities; (3) at the same time, crossings in remote and less accessible areas along the border such as Sasabe, Arizona, or Roma, Texas, are underutilized and less congested; (4) according to Customs Service records, nearly 47 percent of the 3.6 million containers that crossed the border in fiscal year (FY) 1998 from Mexico were empty; (5) government officials at the ports of entry must still process all trucks--empty or not--to ensure compliance with U.S. laws and regulations; (6) commercial traffic congestion at the U.S.-Mexico border is primarily caused by the high volume of vehicles at ports of entry that must be processed through the facilities that have physical and technological limitations and cumbersome practices; (7) the specific factors that contribute to border congestion include: (a) difficulties resulting from the multiple checks at the border by various federal and state agencies; (b) inspection agency staffing shortages at some border crossings; (c) limited use of automated management information systems for processing commercial traffic; (d) lack of land to expand port of entry operations; (e) inadequate roads leading to some ports of entry; and (f) poor port of entry planning among U.S. inspection agencies and limited coordination between the U.S. and Mexican governments; (8) federal, state, and local governments as well as binational groups have responded to congestion at the border with a variety of initiatives; (9) some infrastructure improvements at ports of entry and roads leading to the border have been undertaken and funded by federal and state agencies, and others have been funded and are scheduled to occur in the year 2000 and beyond; and (10) because facilities planning and port of entry operations take place in a complex political and economic environment characterized by competing interests and differing development priorities, these efforts collectively have neither been able to keep up with the rapid increase in the volume of goods crossing the border nor to alleviate congestion.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Customs Service, the four Southwest Border Customs Management Centers report that they now all actively coordinate commercial truck inspections with the other federal inspection services. Some use local Port Quality Improvement Committees to accomplish this task. Other ports have enacted special teams and operations composed of officers from the various federal agencies to coordinate the inspection process and avoid duplication of efforts. Queue waiting time at southwest border facilities has been established at a maximum of 30 minutes. Commercial vehicle processing time has been established at 90 seconds.

    Recommendation: To improve coordination of port of entry operations, the Commissioner of Customs should serve as the lead and work with the Secretaries of Transportation and Agriculture, the Administrator, General Services Administration, the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs to develop and implement a plan for coordinating commercial truck inspections at southwest border ports of entry. This effort should include establishing goals for both queue waiting times (before entering the U.S. inspection compound) and commercial vehicle processing within ports of entry for the southwest border while ensuring compliance with U.S. laws and standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Customs Service reports that it regularly participates in the Border Liaison Mechanism meetings to address cross-border concerns. The four southwest border Customs Management Centers attend such meetings in their local areas, and the field offices also regularly attend these and other binational meetings, and participate with groups to review issues of cross-border concern. Customs is also an active participant in various binational events related to southwest border issues, including those held by the Binational Bridges and Border Crossing group and the U.S.-Mexico Binational Commission.

    Recommendation: To improve the flow of commercial traffic at southwest border ports of entry, the Commissioner of Customs should work with the Department of State's Border Liaison Mechanism so that U.S. and Mexican Customs, the private sector, and other stakeholders on both sides of the border can better coordinate activities, such as hours of operation, that facilitate commercial traffic crossing the border.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 12, 2000, the Department of Transportation negotiated a new Memorandum of Understanding Between the Department of Transportation of the United States of America and the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation of the United Mexican States on the Planning Process for Transport on Each Side of the Border. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishes the intent of both sides to continue to strengthen the binational approach to coordination and transportation planning taken to date through the U.S.-Mexico Joint Working Committee (JWC). The MOU maintains the JWC's organizational structure and functions, focusing it on nine specified lines of work, and directs it to develop and implement biannual work plans.

    Recommendation: To allow for more integrated planning of ports of entry and infrastructure at and leading to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Secretary of Transportation should work with Mexico, through the Joint Working Committee, to better coordinate the various binational planning processes. Such an effort, which may require a new memorandum of understanding, should be coordinated with the appropriate U.S. government agencies working at the southwest border.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed

    Comments: GAO has no information on the actions taken by the agency.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, General Services Administration, should coordinate with the Border Station Partnership Council to develop and utilize empirical data on transportation flows and wait times at border crossings and conduct modelling so that existing southwest border ports of entry infrastructure can be better utilized.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration: Office of the Administrator: GSA Board of Contract Appeals

  5. Status: Closed

    Comments: GAO has no information on the actions taken by the agency.

    Recommendation: To improve port of entry planning, the Administrator, General Services Administration should develop and maintain, in coordination with the Border Station Partnership Council, a data base of facility requirements and current equipment and resources. This could be used to develop a strategy that would enhance the current use of technology to improve port of entry operations.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration: Office of the Administrator: GSA Board of Contract Appeals


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