South Texas lawmakers propose speeding up commercial traffic as Trump OKs adding border ag inspectors

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PHARR, Texas (Border Report) — President Donald Trump has signed into law a bill by a South Texas congressman that will amp up the number of agricultural inspectors at ports of entry on the Southwest border and increase food product safety while helping speed up commercial vehicle crossings.

President Trump late Tuesday signed the Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture Act of 2019, which will allow for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to hire an additional 240 new agriculture specialists and 200 agriculture technicians until staffing shortages are resolved. It also allows for 20 new agriculture canine teams to be brought in over the next three years. The bill was proposed in the House by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, Texas, whose district has several international bridges. Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn co-sponsored the bill.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

Inspectors help carry out the Agricultural Quarantine and Inspection Program, which is jointly administered by CBP and the USDA to ensure that unwanted insects and invasive pests and foreign animal diseases like African swine fever don’t enter U.S. soil, Vela said.

The U.S. agricultural sector brings in $1 trillion in annual economic activity, much of which helps the South Texas communities through which these trucks pass, Vela said. The Pharr International Bridge, for instance, where the majority of agricultural trucks cross into the Rio Grande Valley from Mexico, brings in over $1.2 million in revenue each month. Over 50,000 commercial vehicles cross at this port every month, according to bridge reports.

“Texas relies on the trade and agricultural sectors,” Vela said in a statement Wednesday. “We worked across the aisle, through both chambers, to ensure agriculture specialists and technicians at our ports of entry are adequately staffed to carry out critical agriculture quarantine inspections that safeguard America’s agriculture sector from pests and foreign animal diseases. I know there is more work to be done and we will continue to work to ensure that our ports of entry have the resources they need to maintain and improve the safe flow of goods.”

Read a Border Report story on the Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture Act.

On Wednesday, Vela and fellow South Texas congressman, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen, touted another measure they have filed that they claim would further streamline and expedite certain commercial agricultural vehicles that cross through South Texas.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez

This new proposed bill, the Promoting Agricultural Commerce Act, would grant an exemption to trucks carrying goods on Interstate 2 — the main east-to-west thoroughfare through South Texas that leads to many international bridges and ports. Under current statutes, truckers carrying goods on Interstate 2 may not surpass a certain weight, which forces cargo carriers to find alternative travel routes of travel that can add hours to their travel, cause trucks to meander through small residential communities, delay delivery of sensitive agricultural products, and affect commerce revenue, the lawmakers said.

“When our sugar growers alerted me to this costly and inefficient flaw in existing law, I knew we had to do something about it. I am optimistic that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join us in supporting South Texas agriculture by helping us move this bill through the legislative process,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

“We need this legislation to help our sugar industry to move their products in the most efficient manner,” said Vela, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, who filed the additional legislation on Feb. 13.

Interstate 2 runs from the town of Penitas in western Hidalgo County, east to Harlingen in Cameron County. The route is being expanded and is scheduled to extend all the way east to Laredo, which is home to the busiest commercial trucking port in the nation where more than 2 million northbound commercial trucks pass through every year.

Read a Border Report story on the Laredo ports.

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