The Cross-border Connection

At Laredo International, a renewed focus on growing cargo traffic and looking south

LAREDO, TX — Despite the economic downturn, cities along the Texas/Mexico border continue to reap the benefits brought on by the North American Free Trade Agreement, most notably in the movement of freight. Nowhere is that more evident than at Laredo, which sees some 10,000 cargo-moving trucks cross the Rio Grande River here each day. Comments Laredo International Airport manager Jose L. Flores, “If I can get 1 percent of that to come to the airport, it would be huge.” The recent injection of federal stimulus dollars has helped officials further develop the necessary infrastructure to facilitate cargo growth. However, officials in Laredo are also looking far beyond the Mexico border, and in late 2009 conducted a trade mission to Central America to discuss potential opportunities. It’s an initiative that has sparked interest, says Flores.

Laredo International is the former Laredo Air Force Base, deeded over to the City of Laredo in the 1970s for a new airport. Since that time, the city has constructed a new passenger terminal and in recent times has placed a greater emphasis on capturing more of the freight movement between the U.S. and Mexico.

Comments U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, “Laredo is the largest inland port in the Southern part of the U.S. when we talk about truck traffic. Look at total freight — you have L.A.; New York; Detroit; and then almost tied for third place is Laredo, when you talk about total freight. You can combine every other port in Texas and it doesn’t even match what Laredo does. It’s huge.

“Regarding the stimulus monies and some other dollars we’ve received for the airport, we’ve been putting it in the runways. The main thing is, we’re focusing on infrastructure.

Opportunities for trade are just tremendous.

“We have over 50 different trucking companies here. You have freight forwarders; Customs brokers. In fact, I’m a Customs broker; I don’t practice anymore because I’m a Congressman.”

Key freight players at the airport include UPS, FedEx, DHL, BAX Global, and SwissPort Air Cargo, among others.

In all, the airport received some $10.5 million in stimulus grant monies in 2009, according to Flores. “That was a very fast-paced project that we completed within a little over five months. It had to be shovel-ready and we were.”

The airport’s location, of course, plays a central role in its efforts to be a major player in the cargo arena. Relates Flores, “The City of Laredo is blessed by geography. It puts Laredo right on the Pan-American Highway on the NAFTA super-trade corridor. We’re right smack in the center of the country. It’s that geographic location that’s helped to make Laredo the largest port on the border with Mexico.

“Approximately 41 percent of all surface-transported trade happens through Laredo, Texas. Having said that, the airport hopes to augment that trade and get some more of it to come our way and be processed at the airport.”

Building a Central American connection
In November 2009, Flores and other city representatives conducted a trade mission to Central America, with the goal of getting Laredo International on those countries’ radar. That effort led to the city hosting in February a second trade initiative, which was expected to include some 150 interested parties.

Relates Flores, “We visited six countries in Central America — those countries that have joined the Central American Free Trade Agreement. We went there to promote the Port of Loredo, which happens to be the sixth largest U.S. Customs district in the nation. We went there to promote trade for our community; we were received very well.

“We had conferences with exporters; we had business meetings with trade associations. And we decided back then that we would host a conference in Laredo at Texas A&M International University. We’re promoting trade, be it by air or by a combination of land and sea transport.”

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