Analysis & Opinions - The Hill

Missed opportunity: Ports of entry are critical infrastructure

| Mar. 15, 2018

For as much attention as U.S. border issues receive from the Trump administration, the president's proposed infrastructure plan leaves out any mention of building or modernizing land border ports of entry, the crossing points where goods and people legally move across U.S. borders. This omission may be deliberate, or it may have been an oversight. Whatever the reason, this is a major missed opportunity to address a critical national infrastructure need.

Land border ports of entry are a major American infrastructure class, making up over 40 percent of the General Service Administration’s expenditures through the Federal Building Fund. These ports are large, expensive structures with extensive security requirements that require years to plan, design and build. The existing ports of entry are, on average, over 40 years old and were not designed for a post-9/11 security environment. The inadequacy of the ports often leads to — on a daily basis — hours-long waits to cross.

This is not a narrow regional issue or a “border states” problem; the land ports are key national economic assets. Canada and Mexico are America’s largest export destinations. Canada is the largest export trading partner for 33 American states, while Mexico is the largest export trading partner for six states including California and Texas. The vast majority of those exports move on trucks that pass through the land ports of entry. In short, the lack of modern port infrastructure on our land borders constrains economic growth nationwide.

In addition to the economic impacts, there is an urgent national security and law enforcement need for these ports to be updated. These ports are gateways to the country, and bad actors have exploited them. For example, in 1999, Ahmed Rassam, a Canadian member of al Qaeda, attempted to cross into the United States with a trunk full of powerful explosives he intended to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport. He was stopped only because Customs Inspector Diana Dean noticed his unusual behavior and sent him to secondary inspection.

More recently, the heroin and fentanyl that are fueling America’s opioid crisis are largely smuggled across the border through the ports of entry. Smugglers have become remarkably skilled at hiding contraband within vehicles and cargo.

The land ports of entry are a particularly difficult place to vet dangerous people. Unlike at airports, where passenger information is transmitted to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before international flights depart, at the land border people just show up and are processed without advance notice. But more generally, the more crowded and backlogged the ports are, the harder it is for CBP officers to effectively inspect people and goods to identify possible threats.

Although these ports of entry almost always have been built using federal funding, it is clear that new financing sources are needed. Not only has Congress failed to provide adequate resources for years, any lingering hope that the “$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan” that President Trumppromised on the campaign would provide money to modernize these facilities has been eliminated by his proposed plan.

Public/private partnerships offer a solution. These types of partnership historically have been scarce across much of the border, despite the possibility of reliable revenue streams through tolling and other retail concessions. This is largely because of the complicated binational regulatory environment and the scale of the capital costs involved.

Recent regulatory changes have created meaningful opportunities for private investment in these projects. Specifically, CBP now can accept reimbursement for staffing costs and donations of goods and services. These changes eliminate the most significant legal obstacle to privately funded projects.

The most notable project to take advantage of these new regulations is the Cross Border Xpress in San Diego. This facility, built entirely with private funds, allows ticketed passengers to walk directly from San Diego into the Tijuana airport. This project shows the way forward, but there still needs to be a major shift in approach to attract the kind of private investment that is necessary. With the lack of executive attention, these issues are ripe for congressional leadership and action.

First, the regulatory environment remains a significant deterrent for private investment. Potential project sponsors must obtain approvals from an array of U.S. and Mexican or Canadian agencies to proceed. The possibility of significant regulatory delays, or even project disapproval, injects substantial uncertainty. These approval processes should continue to be streamlined, coordinated binationally, and made more predictable.

Second, the incentives that exist and are being developed for private investment in infrastructure need to be applied systematically to border crossing projects. A concerted effort to apply or make available the variety of government grants or funding support available could provide the economic difference that make broader private investment in ports of entry a possibility.

Finally, border states and communities are going to need to drive these changes. Border communities increasingly are taking advantage of CBP’s donation acceptance authority for incremental infrastructure improvements, but they need to think bigger and pursue larger projects with transformative potential.

It is up to Congress and affected communities to expand the public-private opportunity to build a new generation of land ports of entry that have been left out of President Trump’s infrastructure plan.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bruggeman, Nate and Ben Rohrbaugh.“Missed opportunity: Ports of entry are critical infrastructure.” The Hill, March 15, 2018.

The Authors