EL PASO, Texas (AP) — As temperatures hit the low 40's Thursday in West Texas, participants shivered at an outdoor kickoff ceremony for a U.S. Customs and Border Protection project to allow private entities and local governments to pay for extra staffing at border crossings to cut wait times.
"Just imagine that you are waiting as a pedestrian in line to cross. And you are waiting 15 minutes in this cold, I think that*s too much. Imagine waiting 30 minutes, or an hour or two hours," said U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso as he addressed local officials and Customs and Border Protection officers at a park near the Paso del Norte Bridge.
The five-year pilot project will allow private companies and local governments to pay for overtime at El Paso ports of entry as well as Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the City of Houston Airport System, South Texas ports of entry and the Miami-Dade County ports of entry. These locations include all CBP land, sea and air operations.
Starting Sunday, CBP will add inspection agents to passenger and commercial vehicle and pedestrian lanes at two border bridges during peak hours. The city will give about $1.5 million a year to CBP to pay for the overtime, said El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser.
The goal is to keep wait times under 15 minutes, said Hector Mancha El Paso Port Director.
Nearly 22 million people cross every year in the El Paso-area bridges, about 1 in 13 of the national total, said David Higgerson, CBP Director of Field Operations in El Paso.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district includes ports of entry at Laredo and McAllen, said that in addition to the new legislation allowing the federal agency to receive money from private entities, another 2,000 CBP agents will be added in the next two years.
Also, in the appropriations act passed this year, he said, they introduced language to allow public-private partnerships to also fund infrastructure. One example, he said, is the Anzalduas Port of Entry, which had $7 million to improve the border crossing but no legal framework to do so.
"This provides an alternative," he said.
Sam Vale, president of the South Texas Assets Consortium, said that the plan is to add two lanes to the bridge and in 2015 begin construction of southbound inspection facilities. The South Texas Assets Consortium is a group of ports of entry in Laredo, Rio Grande City, Pharr, McAllen, and Cameron County.
Houston Airport Intergovernmental Relations & Protocol Manager Zeljka Momirovic said overtime money will be used to pay for additional staffing at peak hours and seasons. However, they still need to discuss the issue with airlines and CBP.