Neglect of U.S. border infrastructure continues, hearing reveals
Infrastructure and staffing at U.S. Customs land ports of entry have not kept pace with growth in travel and commerce, creating unnecessary economic strains that will take years to address at the current funding pace, several lawmakers complained Wednesday at a House hearing.
Most of the 167 checkpoints on the northern and southern border are outdated and not configured to meet Customs and Border Protection's post-9/11 security missions. They do not have adequate space for additional traffic lanes, express lanes, inspection equipment, customs booths, parking and other requirements. Many are decades old and need to be renovated or replaced, while others constructed within the past 20 years need upgrades to process vehicles and pedestrians more efficiently.
On an average day, CBP handles about $2 billion in cargo, 350,000 passenger vehicles, 150,000 pedestrians and 30,000 trucks at its land ports.
In its 2010 five-year infrastructure plan, CBP estimated it would need $6 billion over 10 years to modernize existing ports of entry to properly secure and facilitate cross-border moves, but its short-term construction plan for expansion and new ports is $838 million for six projects. In the past four fiscal years, the Obama administration asked for more than $740 million to address the most pressing needs, but Congress only provided $295 million in fiscal year 2014, according to Customs and General Services Administration officials.
The GSA is the federal government's property manager and essentially acts as the landlord for most of the primary border facilities where CBP operates.
The 2009 stimulus bill provided a one-time infusion of funds for several large-scale capital improvement projects.
Eugene Schied, CPP's assistant commissioner for administration, said the agency would update its strategic infrastructure plan next year, but Candice Miller, chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security, questioned the criteria used for prioritizing modernization needs and asked for more transparency in the decision-making process.
CBP evaluates the needs of each border station, determines their urgency, and assesses project feasibility and risk, Schied and Assistant Commissioner John Wagner, who heads of the Office of Field Operations, testified. Facilities are weighted based on about 60 factors, including wait times, safety issues such as electrical code shortcomings, economic impact and money already spent on construction planning.
Miller, a Michigan Republican, complained that the bridge plaza at Port Huron is low on CBP's priority list for modernization even though it is the third largest commercial truck crossing in North America and has a shovel-ready expansion site after the state spent millions on demolition.
CBP also needs enough officers to staff expanded facilities. Congress this year appropriated money for CBP to hire an additional 2,000 officers to operate ports of entry, less than half the number the agency said it required through next year based on its Workload Staffing Model. President Obama's 2015 fiscal-year budget request calls for increases in customs user fees to fund an additional 2,000 officers.
According to a Department of Homeland Security study of major passenger, freight and airport gateways, staffing levels have a significant impact on the economy. Adding a single CBP officer at each of the 33 studied border crossings translates into $2 million of higher Gross Domestic Product, $640,000 in opportunity cost savings, and 33 jobs per year.
CBP's staffing strategy includes re-examining all of its processes to find more efficient ways of operating — using mobile inspection technologies and better business practices like self-serve kiosks at airports, trusted traveler/trader programs, automating paper forms and pre-departure targeting — and reinvesting the savings for frontline operations. The third part of the strategy is finding alternative sources of funding through public-private partnerships.
Last year, under new authority from Congress, CBP launched a five-year pilot project in five locations — including the Miami and Dallas/Fort Worth airports and El Paso, Texas — where local communities agreed to reimburse the agency for overtime or extra manpower during regular shifts to speed up processing at peak times. This year's appropriation from Congress expanded CBP's authority to enter into reimbursement agreements to five airports per year and an unlimited number of land and sea ports of entry. The program is intended to give CBP and local communities the flexibility to address fluctuations in volume and expedite commercial and personal traffic. In the first six months of the program, CBP was able to provide an additional 7,000 CBP officer assignments and open primary lanes and booths for 18,000 more hours at the airports and land ports, Wagner said in his prepared testimony.
The city of El Paso, since late January, has already invested more than $400,000 for almost 3,500 hours of overtime for officers at its three international bridges on the Rio Grande River, Mayor Oscar Leeser said. Wait times at the bridges have decreased even though traffic volumes are up 18 percent, 30 percent and 3 percent for pedestrians, passenger vehicles and trucks, respectively, compared to the same period last year, he said.
Congress also gave CBP and GSA permission to accept donations of property or services from the private sector or local governments for the construction, alteration, operation or maintenance of a new or existing port of entry. Mayor Leeser said El Paso has already applied to upgrade plaza and bridge infrastructure on behalf of the federal government.
Rep. Curtis Clawson, R-Fla., advised CBP officials to make a strong business case for expansion to win funding support from Congress.
"I feel a little bit in the dark," said Clawson, who managed factories in several parts of Mexico while working in the private sector. "It's like coming to a board meeting without a board book. So I'm hearing management tell me they'd like to make capital expenditures and move their strategic plan along, and I do not have data that shows me how they have earned it.
"I'm not doubting that you have earned it. But if you want my support for more money, I need to know how you've earned the money in the past. And that's called fiduciary, or constituent, responsibility," continued Clawson, who recently won a special election in Florida's 19th district and just joined the committee.
"I would always say that the way to manage a board of directors is to make it easy for them. And if you want to make it easy for me, bring me data that I can understand, which shows you're doing your job, you're taking care of taxpayer dollars, and when we give you a dollar, you're making great productivity out of that dollar. Make that case, and it will be much easier to have allies," he said.
Miller and another colleague expressed interest in trying private financing models to pay for infrastructure improvements, but said federal accounting rules complicate matters. That's because the entire cost of a project has to be assigned to the initial year even if expenditures occur over multiple years.