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$25M TIGER grant will fund Nogales port improvements

A $25 million federal grant will help pay for a "major reconfiguration" of the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales, which U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said will "provide much-needed infrastructure repairs."

The TIGER 9 grant will fund big changes to State Route 189 leading to the port of entry, which is one of the busiest in the country with more than 7 million vehicle crossings each year — including about 300,000 commercial truck trips into the United States.

The crossing "is responsible for processing 40 percent of America’s imported produce and hundreds of southbound trucks filled with exports — but currently, SR-189 is overwhelmed and unable to handle so much traffic," said U.S. Rep. Martha McSally.

The upgrades will include raised medians, pavement widening, flyover ramps, and new roundabouts, Grijalva's office said. A release from McSally's office noted the project will include building overpasses above Frank Reed Road for ramps leading to the interstate, and that the additional federal funds will speed the completion of the project.

Grijalva said the fixes needed "have been neglected for decades and have cost our economy millions."

"TIGER grants have been a boon to local communities across the nation, and I appreciate the entire Arizona delegation joining me in support of this important funding to safeguard the millions of jobs that depend on the efficiency of our important economic relationship with Mexico," the Southern Arizona Democrat said.

Grijalva and McSally joined other members of Arizona's congressional delegation in pressing the Department of Transportation to fund the project.

A $250 million expansion of the Mariposa Port of Entry itself, completed about four years ago, added four commercial inspection lanes and eight private-vehicle inspection lanes, and modernized secondary inspection facilities. But staffing problems and over-burdened roadways leading to and from the crossing have hampered cross-border traffic.

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Only one road connects port with Interstate 19, the major highway most truckers or distributors use to transport product to other U.S. cities. A shipping manager said in 2015 tat accidents happen regularly along this four-mile stretch, usually between semitrailers and other motorists.

"We only have one road, it's like a bottleneck," said Octavio Vasquez, a facility manager for the Nogales branch of ProTrans, an Indiana-based logistics company. "Of course, there are going to be some safety issues and some traffic issues. Many citizens crossing in their own cars have to deal with this traffic."

The new grant is "a critical part of the financing package for the full build out for the modernization of SR 189," said Guillermo Valencia, chairman of the Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority, in a news release from Grijalva's office.

"This grant will go a long way towards ensuring the long-term growth and development of the county and the entire region," said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker.

Pushing for funding, Grijalva said in December that "updating and modernizing our infrastructure at ports of entry is a necessary investment not only for our state but also for the millions of constituents who benefit from it. To continue to militarize our border by focusing solely on enforcement mechanisms is a great disservice."

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild also welcomed the grant: "We've been advocating for this important trade corridor for years. I'm very pleased that this grant will facilitate increased trade and tourism with our Mexican partners, helping our regional economy."

During peak season, from February to April, approximately 1,800 trucks cross through Nogales each day, Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said in December.

Much of the congestion at the port is due to understaffing. According to a 2016 Customs and Border Protection report to Congress, CBP has 2,107 unfilled officer positions, despite an increase of more than 30 percent in trucks with goods crossing from Mexico over the last decade, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

In Arizona, the Tucson sector had over 20 percent of unfilled positions, according to a letter the Arizona Border Counties Coalition sent to the state’s congressional delegation in August. That letter — signed by Backer, Cochise County Supervisor Patrick Call, Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson and Yuma County Supervisor Tony Reyes – "the need for infrastructure improvements and additional CBP staffing at the ports of entry are critical concerns."

The need to increase capacity of the roadway on the U.S. side as the port expanded was recognized by the Arizona Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration in 2011.

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The new project "is one of the best examples of Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery in the state of Arizona," said Nogales Mayor John Doyle. "I hope this grant brings to fruition the full solution to the SR 189 bottleneck."

TIGER grants, which President Donald Trump proposed eliminating, have included a $63 million grant to fund part of the construction of Tucson's Sun Link streetcar. That grant was announced in 2010.

Cronkite News reporters Andrea Jaramillo Valencia and Will Sowards contributed background to this story.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Andrea Jaramillo Valencia/Cronkite News

Trucks wait at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona.