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South-Central El Paso residents call on federal government to divert commercial traffic away from Bridge of the Americas

The Bridge of the Americas is a port of entry to Mexico in South-Central El Paso. It is also called "Puente Libre" or "Free Bridge."
Aaron J. Montes / KTEP News
The Bridge of the Americas is a port of entry to Mexico in South-Central El Paso. It is also called "Puente Libre" or "Free Bridge."

EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - The federal government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in South-Central El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas has come with calls to remove commercial truck traffic from the port of entry.

Under the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the international crossing is set to receive between $650 million and $700 million in a modernization project. After a few public meetings, feedback from residents and neighborhood associations has already prompted the federal government to create a proposal that would avoid the acquisition of county property, including the El Paso Coliseum and events center.

But the topic of commercial traffic remains a large sore point for residents living within a mile of the bridge. Homeowners and members of those same neighborhood associations have made strong statements pushing local and federal officials to provide a plan that would re-route large semi-trucks and other commercial traffic to different ports of entry.

“It’s a sad situation that these trucks come in here, they destroy neighborhoods and they bring air pollution to the maximum,” Quirino Villa, the president of the Delta Washington Park Neighborhood Association said during a community meeting on Saturday.

El Paso’s U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar said she has heard feedback from her constituents. Moving the traffic will require the U.S. Department of State to get involved because the bridge is shared with Mexico, she added.

“I want the community to know that we are engaging in conversations around that to move commercial truck traffic from the middle of town further East in order to make the Bridge of the Americas more focused on pedestrians and vehicular traffic,” Escobar told KTEP News.

County letter to the federal government

El Paso County Commissioners are at odds over how strong of a position they should take on commercial traffic at the bridge in a letter that will be sent to the federal government. They’ve discussed and agreed to send a letter three times this year, the third on Monday.

In the latest decision, commissioners made some changes to the language of their letter, so as not to convey a message that they would only support the bridge project if the federal government guaranteed commercial traffic from the Bridge of the Americas would be diverted.

The court voted 3-2 on the new language. Commissioners Iliana Holguin and David Stout voted against the new letter. County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and commissioners Sergio Coronado and Carlos Leon voted in favor of it.

Commissioner Stout of Precinct 2, who represents the neighborhoods near the bridge, said the language did not sufficiently reflect his constituents’ calls to move the commercial traffic from the port of entry.

Some of his constituents from the San Juan Neighborhood Improvement Association and Familias Unidas del Chamizal called in to the meeting pushing the court to advocate against allowing commercial traffic to continue using the bridge.

“The letter to me now says that we’ve chosen to disregard the residents’ concerns and that it’s ok for the federal government to do so as well,” Stout said.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said the letter’s new language sets the stage for the county to make arrangements for another port of entry to one day handle the Bridge of the America’s commercial traffic. He said the Tornillo bridge in Far East El Paso County could be an option.

“I want to be at the table and I feel an ultimatum takes us off the table,” Samaniego said. “I’m willing to work really hard so we don’t have commercial traffic at (the Bridge of the Americas). I just want to do it in the smartest possible way.”

GSA studies and timeline

For now, the U.S. General Services Administration is in charge of presenting the project's proposals to the public. The overall plan for the bridge project would be to improve pedestrian, passenger, commercial and primary inspection areas as well as the port’s facilities.

The project is still in a preliminary planning phase where no decisions have been made and federal officials are taking feedback from the community.

The federal government scheduled an environmental impact statement and feasibility study to be completed by September. The feasibility study will help identify three alternatives for the project, according to GSA officials.

But all findings in the study may not be made available to the public due to the federal government’s policy, according to Charlie Hart, the GSA’s Southern Border Executive.

“They’re actually restricted to the executive branch of government because it’s a predecisional document typically used for budgeting,” Hart said during a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting on Friday.

Construction is not expected to be completed until 2031. GSA officials say improvements will be made in phases to ensure the bridge stays open during construction.

“When we turned to, in particular, customs and border protection they said shutting the port down wasn’t an option,” Hart said. “During construction, there will be one phase where there’s no commercial traffic. And, that phase could be as long as a year.”

The port of entry was constructed in 1967 and later received replacement bridges in 1998. It was built after the governments of the United States and Mexico ratified the Chamizal Treaty, which brought a century-old dispute over nearly 600 acres of land near the Rio Grande to an end.

Neighborhoods are within walking distance of the Bridge of the Americas and are also near the highways where heavy amounts of commercial and other traffic line up to cross the border. During busy hours of the day, it’s not uncommon for large lines of traffic to sit idle on the highways waiting to cross.

Businesses involved in cross-border trade are pondering what would happen with commercial traffic if directed to other ports of entry.

Miriam Baca-Kotkowski, president of the transportation division with Tecma, attended the MPO’s meeting last week.

She said other ports of entry in the region will need to increase the number of lanes they operate if the federal government redirects commercial traffic from the Bridge of the Americas. The port of entry is also called the Cordova Bridge.

Baca-Kotkowski said officials will also need to coordinate with customs agencies in Mexico to coordinate shifts in commercial traffic.

“Reducing Cordova…it’s kind of like cutting a vein of your system,” Baca-Kotkowski said.

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