Douglas, Agua Prieta may go it alone on new crossing

 Perla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star

DOUGLAS - Waiting hours to go through the port of entry is not only an issue for those coming north. Lines can be as long - or longer - heading south.

The congestion in Douglas has gotten so bad with oversized trucks and private vehicles using the same two lanes out of the United States that local officials and business leaders from both sides of the border want to build a new commercial port of entry about four miles west of the downtown location. They plan to pay for it with private money if federal funding is not available.

 "If Douglas is going to grow, we need a new port of entry," said Carlos De La Torre, Douglas city manager.

The current port of entry was built in 1933 and last expanded 20 years ago. It has limited space for commercial trucks and, as the mining and power industries pick up in neighboring Sonora, traffic is increasing. Last year, the city of Douglas paved a new road, Third Street, to reroute passenger vehicles that blocked the commercial district on Pan American Avenue and Fifth Street.

In the last decade, the number of commercial trucks coming through has increased 30 percent to about 32,000. The number of pedestrians has nearly doubled to 1.1 million.

But private vehicle traffic has decreased significantly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks because of long lines and increased difficulty getting a visa to come to the U.S.

Douglas has the state's second-largest commercial port with more than $1 billion in trade a year.

A new port is an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create jobs in a community with a 9-percent unemployment rate, said Danny Ortega, the city's mayor. It also will benefit Agua Prieta, said Oscar De La Torre Amezcua, the Mexico consul in Douglas.

Douglas and Agua Prieta are down to two possible sites for the project.

But with sequestration and restricted budgets there's no federal money available, city officials said, and they don't want to wait. The cities are considering a private-public partnership to fund construction, estimated at $15 million to $30 million.

The Douglas port needs to be upgraded to handle more commercial traffic, said Rep. Ron Barber, an Arizona Democrat whose district includes Douglas.

But he doesn't want local officials to give up on getting funding from the federal government.

The border should be primarily the responsibility of the federal government, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva.

"While I appreciate the public-private combination, we still have the fundamental issue that these are investments long overdue that haven't been dealt with," he said.

Some improvements are already underway at the port to help speed up the flow of traffic.

A second southbound lane was added about four months ago. And on Aug. 1, the port will open its first SENTRI lane - a dedicated fast lane for travelers who undergo thorough background checks.

Douglas has $500,000 for planning and permitting, and officials are researching ways the project can pay for itself, including tolls. Construction is estimated to be completed in five years.

The plan is to build a port that can grow in stages as demand increases, City Manager De La Torre said, "We want to make sure it makes sense economically."