Washington, D.C., and Mexico City may be in the middle of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement’s future but in its present state, this is what NAFTA looks like here in the border town of Douglas, Arizona: An average of $1 million in trade creaking its way back and forth through the old port of entry pulled by about 120 big rigs. On the southbound side, it’s a crawling line of diesel trucks mixed with cars and pickup heading into Mexico. And then, the determined march comes to a stop as trucks are inspected at the Mexican side of this shipping port.
"Towards the end of the day, around 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to close for Mexican customs, that’s when traffic really starts to get backed up," said Isidro Lagos, Customs and Border Protection chief officer.
Today, the line of trucks in front of it is starting to back up into the U.S. as Mexico’s staging line fills up.
"Once they’re through, then we can go ahead and toggle that lane and allow a different additional commercial trucks to come in until the staging line is full. Once the staging line is full, the process repeats itself," he said.
That’s traffic heading into Mexico. Truck traffic coming into the U.S. faces an entirely different challenge: mostly a hard right turn into a parking lot about the size of a small grocery store’s.
"That’s the challenge. Literally this real estate, this rectangle of asphalt where we do our operations. It’s just congested. We’ve outgrown it," Lagos said.
Douglas is one of only three shipping ports connecting Mexico and Arizona. And this old port was built in 1932 and was never designed to handle the traffic it sees now as giant trucks merge with passenger cars down two narrow lanes.
Just across the border, the city of Agua Prieta is building a new rail line. And farther down in Sonora, the Guaymas shipping port has expanded to handle $6 billion a year in trade, mostly with China. And Cochise County administrator Ed Gilligan wants this rural county ready to handle that trade.
"Right now that traffic gets divided into three ports, San Luis in Yuma, Mariposa in Nogales and Douglas. But this becomes the least desirable commercial port because it’s very congested and not dedicated," Gilligan said.
The county’s plan is to build an entirely new shipping port six miles west of Douglas on what’s now a lonely road at the border using a combination of private investment and federal and state dollars.
Shipping is one reason, but there's other reasons as well.
"You need jobs. And commercial port-of-entry jobs not only in government positions but also the private industry jobs, for shipping and processing, warehouses, distribution centers, airports," Gilligan said. "There are a lot of jobs connected to the expansion of commercial activity here in Douglas."
Those jobs are heavily on the minds of planners 100 miles away in Tucson.
John Moffatt is the economic development director for Pima County. His plan involves what’s been dubbed the Sonoran Corridor. Bottom line, it’s a shorter route.
"The route that we have picked cuts 12 miles off that route and eliminates having to go through Tucson, all the crossings and then having to come back out to the southeast," he said.
This proposed corridor would end up creating an enormous hub tying Tucson’s tech giants to the east to the airport and to the shipping port. Pima County estimates are 100,000 new jobs in this part of Arizona and $32 billion a year in revenue. The project is still on paper; and its environmental impact is being reviewed, but the competition is very real.
"We are seeing some loss from Culiacán and Sinaloa. There is a new highway built by the Mexican government that crosses over and ties into Texas. So loads going to the East Coast are more rapidly delivered through that route," Moffatt said.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has already budgeted for one crossing point with Mexico: it plans to spend a quarter of a billion dollars to tear down the pedestrian port of entry near Yuma and rebuild it.