A fight between small Arizona communities on the U.S.-Mexico border and the federal government over the construction of a new truck inspection station shows no signs of easing as local communities say any new facility will hurt their economies.
"We feel it’s going to drive business away from here… We don’t have to speculate. We know it will. It’s not good when you’re trying to compete against other regions globally. It’s not good for a region and for the state, so we oppose it tremendously," Guillermo Valencia, president of broker Valencia International and chairman of the Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority, told Fleet Owner.
"We all want to work together. We all want investment down here,” he added. “We all want safe trucks. [The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] wants to put [funds] into our community. That's great, but not something that’s going to hold us back, block us or work against us."
Valencia is referring to a new, larger truck safety inspection facility to be run by FMCSA that will have eight more bays than the current two bays operated jointly by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).
The station in Nogales at the Mariposa Port of Entry came about as a compromise between FMCSA and ADOT that local leaders say is adequate for the current traffic. Before it was jointly manned, Valencia says that federal inspectors conducted unnecessary and burdensome inspections.
"It was overburdening the industry here, and trucks that were being inspected yesterday were being inspected again today,” he said. “It was just a lot of redundancy and, if they wanted to, [FMCSA inspectors] would pick on certain transportation carriers. [Drivers] felt they were being picked on and it created a really bad rapport and atmosphere with the trucking industry to the point that [trucking companies] threatened and blocked our international roadway a couple of times. It was complete blockades here, because they were complaining about the random, heavy-handed treatment of the FMCSA."
An e-mail from Fleet Owner to FMCSA officials asking for their response to these allegations was not answered.
Valencia also said that Mexican drivers alleged that federal inspectors threatened to confiscate their passports if they complained about treatment.
'If you don’t do what I say or talk back to me, I’m going to take your passport away," Valencia said drivers were told, even though they do not have that authority.
Bruce Bracker, vice chairman of District 3 of Santa Cruz County, said that federal officials previously were not "using any streaming process to decide which trucks needed to be inspected and what trucks didn’t need to be inspected."
He said that trucks would be inspected one day and then the next day the same truck would be inspected again. "Minor infractions were written up as major infractions. It was horrible. Merchandise was being sent back into Mexico on trucks that didn’t need to go back to Mexico."
Other local and county officials have also raised the alarm. In a letter to Osmahn Kadri, National Environmental Policy Act program manager, general services administration, the federal agency tasked with securing land and building the inspection facility, the Santa Cruz board of supervisors wrote: "the new facilities will result in inefficiencies at the border, increase costs for industry, result in more congestion, expend limited federal funds in unnecessary projects (funds that could be used in other border infrastructure) and negatively impact trade and commerce. Finally, the new facilities will not result in safer trucks or better drivers than the programs and processes that are already in place."
The board noted: "Santa Cruz County is home to one of the largest ports of entry for both commercial and non-commercial traffic. We are the gateway for approximately 85% of Arizona's trade with Mexico and approximately 45% of the tourism. What happens at the ports of entry in Santa Cruz County is of significant impact to Arizona and the nation."
ADOT Deputy Director Scot Omer wrote to Kadri: "Although [FMCSA and ADOT inspectors] share space, they haven't always used the same approach to truck safety inspections. That led to many of the drivers who carry crucial products back and forth complaining about unnecessarily redundant inspections that didn't promote safety and instead slowed down commerce."
He added: "Given the excellent partnership and many benefits that [now] ensue from shared space and a common approach, ADOT was quite surprised when FMCSA and the General Services Administration announced their intent to embark on a programmatic Environmental Impact review to build brand new FMCSA facilities at Arizona's major commercial ports of entry, including the two where FMCSA is currently co-located with ADOT. Separate facilities for FMCSA mean a return to the bad old days of redundant inspections, uneven enforcement, unnecessary construction and maintenance costs, and slower crossing times for legitimate commerce.
The letter noted: "The addition of redundant FMCSA facilities will ultimately show no improvements in operational efficiencies, result in redundant enforcement for legal commerce, and cost taxpayers more — with no discernible benefit to safety or enforcement."
In his letter, the Nogales mayor put the effect in financial perspective: “Over 337,000 trucks enter the state of Arizona through the Mariposa Port annually; these trucks represent over $30 billion worth of goods imported from Mexico; during the peak produce season on average over 1,800 trucks of perishable fruits and vegetables cross into Nogales to be distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada. It is critical that these commodities reach their destination with the least delay as possible."
He added: "unwarranted and overzealous inspections with excessive fines would make Nogales's $30 billion-a-year importation business less competitive and encourage industry to look to Texas and California over Nogales."
Officials and elected boards from Yuma City and the City of San Luis wrote similar letters opposing the new facility.
When asked to respond to the substance of these letters, GSA officials in an e-mail responded: "As part of its mission to provide facilities for federal agencies, GSA has partnered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to develop inspection projects at a number of land ports of entry (LPOEs) so that FMCSA agents can safely and effectively inspect both commercial truck and bus traffic.
"These GSA-led projects are intended to provide FMCSA with long-term facilities (leased or owned) to meet their future mission requirements. The FMCSA currently operates on short-term leases and agreements. GSA is currently preparing an Environmental Impact Statement to analyze potential impacts and alternatives from the proposed construction of six inspection facilities at five different LPOEs in both California and Arizona. GSA has also proposed a collocation concept, an idea that the FMCSA supports. The two Arizona locations are the Mariposa LPOE (Nogales, Ariz.) and the San Luis II LPOE (San Luis, Ariz.). GSA has developed a webpage on the FMCSA Environmental Impact Statement."
In conclusion, Bracker says: "We object to the federal government spending $70 million on a study to see where they can put the facilities. And we object to the money that the Federal government is going to end up spending to build these facilities. Because at the end of the day it’s going to slow trade down… In a perfect world, [the federal government] gives us that $70 million to improve our ports of entry, but that's not going to happen."