For 20 years, the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge has been known as the longest bridge connecting two countries. It recently gained the title of the international crossing which forms the shortest route between Mexico’s west coast and the United States’ eastern and midwestern markets, via the Mazatlán-Matamoros superhighway. Mexican produce gets to its destination faster, which in turns means lower transportation costs (fewer miles) and higher quality fruits and vegetables (less time in transit). Adding to the bridge’s attraction is its reputation for having the shortest wait and processing times (as little as 30 minutes but averaging two hours) for customs and agricultural inspections. On top of that, it has the lowest tolls.
The Pharr Bridge is now the fourth largest port of entry on the Mexican border with approximately 2,200 northbound commercial trucks crossing daily. While produce crossings had climbed about 10% annually, in 2015 the numbers of trucks filled with fruit and vegetables using the Pharr Bridge surged by almost 30%, according to an industry expert. Of course, not all the half million trucks headed north over the Pharr Bridge carry produce, but the ones that do make use of 29 cold storage businesses clustered near the bridge and the overweight corridor. That number is growing, and existing facilities are expanding. Pharr already is the national leader in assorted fresh fruit imports (melons, berries). This year some produce experts predict that Pharr will supplant Nogales, Ariz. as the primary gateway for produce entering the United States. Local businesses and the Valley’s economy will certainly benefit.
Inside one cold room at Smart Cold Storage in Pharr’s Keystone district, pallets of Mexican avocados stacked three high stretch to the far wall: 66 pallets are held at a carefully monitored 38 degrees. The Pharr bridge cleared 618 million avocados in 2014, and the number will be considerably higher this year, thanks in small part to Smart Cold’s presence. The owners of the 15,000-square-foot warehouse, which opened in December 2014, plan to double this space in 2016 to handle 90-95 truckloads at a time. The facility provides services to Triple H, its parent company, and other distributors and growers of Mexican peppers, tomatoes, mangos and cucumbers.
Smart Cold’s Enrique Bracamontes, an industrial engineer and Monterrey Tech graduate, said Triple H chose to build its largest facility in Pharr, rather than at its Nogales and San Diego locations, because of their large, established client base in the central and eastern U.S. “Nogales is very crowded. With the superhighway from Mazatlán, you save money and time. That’s a good opportunity for growers and shippers. In two days, you can have product in the U.S.” Previously it took at least three days. An avocado distributor in California is among the customers who now use Pharr as the U.S. gateway for produce.
“Many growers and shippers want to use our facility. We are always ahead of the food safety rules of the United States. We know a little contamination can ruin your business,” Bracamontes said. The company, which has Primus Lab GFS certification, is vigilant in handling product. Barcoded labels provide full “traceability” from the field to the packer to the shipper.
Taking care of the product also involves taking care of the truck drivers. “We load and unload very fast. That’s the key to this business,” Bracamontes said. “If the driver is happy, the client is happy.” Smart Cold has driver waiting and lounge areas, coupled with real-time screens so drivers can watch their trucks being loaded and unloaded.
One customer is awaiting Smart Cold’s expansion and could possibly take up all that storage, Bracamontes said
The opening of the superhighway from Mazatlán to Matamoros is certainly the major factor for the surge in produce cargo at Pharr, said Bret Erikson, CEO of the Texas International Produce Association in Mission. Other factors are water shortages in California, Arizona and Texas along with the shortage of ag labor. So, production has been shifting out of the U.S. “But a growing population means rising demand for fresh produce,” he added. Meeting that demand has significantly boosted fruit and vegetables imports through Pharr.
The Pharr International Bridge was the first Texas Port of Entry to provide refrigerated areas for produce cargo inspections. “Cold inspection means it doesn’t break the cold chain, enabling longer shelf life,” said Luis Bazan, bridge director. He oversees a full-service commercial bridge, where commercial trucks constitute the bulk of its traffic. Catering to the fresh produce industry, the bridge has six truck entry lanes and elevated super booths on level with the driver. Six cold storage docks can handle intensive inspections of 60-80 trucks at once. Non-intrusive imaging equipment, such as GAMA rays, canines and the FAST program, which expedites document and cargo inspection, help speed the process.
About 60% of all produce coming into Texas crosses at the Pharr Bridge. “We like to consider ourselves one of most efficient and secure bridges,” Bazan said, acknowledging the importance of coordination with Mexican counterparts, like those with certified overweight scales.
Bazan said 2016 bridge traffic could increase up to 8%. To stay efficient, the bridge has plans for growth. Projects in pipeline, thanks to the public-private 559 partnership, include two new super-booth exit lanes, two commercial entry lanes and booths, remodeling of the ag facility, and upgrades on the Mexican side of the bridge. In 2014, the partnership donated $88,000 in overtime hours for Customs and Border Protection staffing. In addition, the South Texas Asset Consortium, established by the regions’ international bridge owners/operator, secured a $650,500 grant for 2016 to fund additional hours for agricultural inspectors at 11 ports of entry, including Pharr.
Using the superhighway and the Pharr Bridge saves truckers approximately eight hours, said Fernando Pacheco of Alliance Real Estate Group. “For produce, eight hours is a big difference.” Pacheco represents the City of Pharr in selling the 31 lots in the 100-acre Pharr Produce District. Concrete roads and utility infrastructure make the site shovel ready. Four tracts have been sold with construction beginning in February.
“They (tomato growers and importers) intend to build 50,000-60,000-square-foot cold storage facilities,” Pacheco said, and invest a minimum $6 million. He predicted that the growers currently crossing through Nogales will eventually send 70% of their exports through Pharr, leaving 30% in Nogales.
The Pharr EDC wanted to anchor more produce companies next to the bridge and developed the Pharr Produce District on the overweight corridor to maximize opportunities for the city. Sergio Contreras, EDC executive director, said the EDC helps expedite the permitting and construction of facilities, making it easier to attract local, out-of-state and Mexican investors, who create jobs not only in the produce business.
“We have a wealth of experience in cold storage with current investors, whose facilities range from 2,000-50,000 square feet. Cold storage owners are competitive, but part of the business model is to share their information. It’s an industry that cooperates.”
The winter months mark the peak season for produce imports from Mexico. Pharr International Bridge will be the gateway for much of nature’s bounty we welcome at our tables.
January 2016 cover story by Eileen Mattei