DALLAS – Uncertainty over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement has not stopped Texas from continuing to invest in freight routes across the Rio Grande, including two corridors seen as competitors for the Panama Canal.
Increasingly, the state's transportation planners are trying to coordinate developments in Mexico with those in Texas in hopes of capitalizing on lucrative trade deals.
"A greater awareness of Mexico's freight transportation policies and planned infrastructure improvements is needed to allow the public and private sector to effectively plan for anticipated growth in trade," according to the Texas Freight Mobility Plan issued in January by the Texas Department of Transportation.
The advisory committee that wrote the report was led by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and included Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, representatives of trucking, rail, energy and related industries, along with other local officials in key transportation cities.
While Texas has a huge economic stake in cross-border trade, its Republican elected officials are steering clear of hot-button political issues such as party nominee Donald Trump's vow to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and to renegotiate or end NAFTA.
"Our horrible trade agreements with China and many others, will be totally renegotiated," Trump told the Republican Convention in accepting the nomination last week. "That includes renegotiating NAFTA to get a much better deal for America – and we'll walk away if we don't get that kind of a deal."
The Republican party formally adopted a call to build the border wall.
Through a spokeswoman, Texas Secretary of State Cascos declined an opportunity to comment on Trump's wall and NAFTA proposals, even though cross-border trade promotion is one of his key duties.
Texas Democrats are less reticent.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, who, like Cascos, hails from Brownsville on the southern tip of Texas, gained national attention in June when he sent an open letter to Trump, telling the presidential contender to "take your border wall and shove it up your a--."
"Why any modern-thinking person would ever believe that building a wall along the border of a neighboring country, which is both our ally and one of our largest trading partners, is frankly astounding and asinine," Vela wrote.
In his normal duties, Vela promotes port facilities in Brownsville and border facilities like the new inspection stations in Pharr and Donna, both in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
The two South Texas projects were among three proposals nationwide selected by Department of Homeland Security under the Donations Acceptance Program designed to speed public-private partnerships for port of entry projects.
The U.S. Customs and Border Inspection Department's Small-Scale Donation Proposal Process targets projects costing $3 million or less that are relatively simple.
On a larger scale, Texas officials are paving the way for two trade corridors to connect with major Mexican transportation projects.
One of the projects, known in Texas as the Mazatlan Highway and in Mexico as Carretera Interoceánica or Federal Highway 40, is already bringing Mexican produce and other trade goods to the border cities Brownsville and Laredo. The highway begins near Mexico's Pacific port city of Mazatlan.
A second corridor, La Entrada al Pacifico, links the Mexican state of Chihuahua with Texas at the Rio Grande crossing of Presidio. Ultimately, La Entrada is designed to bring freight by rail or truck from Mexico's Pacific port of Topolobampo.
A major impediment to both routes is Mexico's daunting Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, which requires serious tunneling and bridge work. La Entrada must also traverse Chihuahua's Copper Canyon, the Mexican equivalent of the Grand Canyon.
The Mazatlan highway is further along in development but has a ways to go, said Rafael Aldrete, senior research scientist at Texas A&M University's Center for International Intelligent Transportation Research in El Paso.
The solution for La Entrada's challenging terrain could involve a combination of rail and truck transportation, Aldrete said.
"Upgrading that corridor to take out some of the grades is a very expensive proposition," Aldrete said of La Entrada. "The tunnels do not allow for double-stacking of rail cars, and on some of those sharp curves, they would not be able to pass."
Despite those problems, engineers on the Texas side of La Entrada are pressing on with developments, including an inland port in the Midland-Odessa area, heart of the Permian Basin oil and gas region.
In addition to the rail and truck route, Midland-Odessa officials are promoting a trans-border gas pipeline to deliver Permian Basin gas to large customers in Mexico. Such a project could require an act of Congress.
"The La Entrada Corridor has been designated as a Congressional High Priority Corridor and is included on the Texas Freight Network," said Mark Cross, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. "TxDOT is continuing to focus our efforts on corridor development to align with needs related to growth in international trade and energy sector activities."
Most trade with Western Mexico currently passes through the overloaded port of El Paso. Logjams in El Paso inspired development of New Mexico's Santa Teresa crossing about 20 miles to the west.
Santa Teresa and Interstate 19 in southeast Arizona could essentially direct all of the growth in trade with Western Mexico into Arizona and New Mexico, according to the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance. A study by McCray Research indicates that most of the trade from the New Mexico and Arizona routes is headed to the northeast.
One significant development on La Entrada is rebuilding a rail bridge at the Presidio-Ojinaga Port of Entry that was damaged by fire in 2008. Construction is expected to begin next year, Cross said. The bridge is jointly owned by Mexico and TxDOT and operated by their joint lessee Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd.
For the more advanced Mazatlan Highway, Texas is boosting development of the new Interstate 69, which will link major border crossings with major seaports in Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Houston.
TxDOT has more than $600 million committed to I-69, a project that is being pieced together from existing roads raised to interstate highway standards.
"As additional funding becomes available, existing highways will be improved in a series of small, local-level projects," according to a TxDOT statement. "Improving the existing highway to interstate quality will allow I-69 to be developed in small sections as funding allows."
Incremental development of the overland trade corridors comes with the Panama Canal having opened its expanded lock system. The $5.25 billion project doubled the capacity of the canal and allows larger container ships to traverse the isthmus.
"With the Panama Canal expansion, we're looking to see what happens," Aldrete said. "The jury's still out on whether these highways that connect to Mazatlan can compete."
According to TxDOT, the state has 13 truck border crossings to Mexico. In 2014, more than $246 billion worth of goods were transported from Mexico into Texas at the crossings, and 83% were moved by truck, with the remainder by rail.
"This amounts to more than 3.7 million inbound trucks and 430,000 inbound rail containers," the Freight Mobility Report says. "These numbers only reflect movements from Mexico into Texas since many ports-of-entry do not report outbound traffic. More than half the total goods crossing at a Texas-Mexico border had an origin or destination in another state."
Calling a halt to those proceedings would be a tall order, even if Trump were to claim the White House, experts say.
"We tried not to make assumptions based on current political events," Aldrete said of a recent study of border wait times in El Paso-Juarez. "We cannot really base our research on that."
Andy Hobbs, analyst at Moody's Investors Service, acknowledged that the political rhetoric about building a wall and impeding trade is something that he and other analysts are thinking about, even if they're not writing about it. Should Trump win, the credit factors would come into much sharper focus, he said.
"That's kind of why we've left it out of our reports," he said. "But it's not like we have blinders on."