EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Mexican officials are planning major safety improvements this year at four facilities leading to U.S. ports of entry.
These include covered pedestrian walkways, electronic toll-collection systems, fiberoptic cameras and a first-ever secured command center to handle major events such as toxic spills or public safety emergencies.
The improvements will take place at the Paso del Norte, Reforma-Express Lane, Zaragoza and Guadalupe-Tornillo international bridges probably starting in May, said Sergio Madero, director-general of the Chihuahua state Border Bridges Commission. All four are in the El Paso, Texas area.
“This is important not only for traffic control but also for security reasons. We (in Mexico) are not used to seeing border crossings as national security installations, but that is what they are. We will have more efficient and secure communication with all agencies involved,” in border security, including U.S. agencies if needed, Madero said.
Plans call for the secured command center to be built next to the Mexican National Immigration Institute building at the Zaragoza bridge, which handles most of the commercial traffic from Juarez to El Paso. Between 45,000 and 49,000 trucks pass through the facility on their way to the United States every month, according to the City of El Paso.
A special fiberoptic network will need to be laid at the facility to allow for high-resolution cameras and secured communications. The network will extend east toward the town of Guadalupe, Mexico, across from Tornillo, Texas, Madero said.
The cameras will have a southward range of 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) to allow officials a long-range look of traffic. Some of the live feed would be routed to a web or social media platform to give bridge users an idea of traffic volumes.
The command center will include a “crisis room” where Mexican officials can meet in case of an emergency, get privileged information, make decisions and communicate those to other agencies locally or in Mexico City, Madero said.
The cost of the improvements runs around $10 million. The Bridges Commission has its own funding, but still needs the green light from the Mexican Ministry of Transportation and Communications, Madero said.
While border safety is a big part of the planned modernization, regular port-of-entry users will see changes, too. For starters, the Commission plans to place canvass or another type of cover to protect pedestrians at the Paso del Norte Bridge from the sun and bad weather.
Motorists can still give their cash to the toll collector, but soon they will have the option of using prepaid, refillable cards or even bank cards, Madero said. In El Paso, motorists using the city-owned Stanton Street Bridge to go into Mexico already have a prepaid electronic option, which now Mexico wants to duplicate.
Eventually, there would be a toll tag option in Juarez as well, Madero said.
“The goal is to bring security and modernization through technology for border residents,” he said. Plans also call for electronic boards to share important information with pedestrians and motorists.
No improvements are planned at the Bridge of the Americas, which is under the direct control of the Mexican federal government. The Chihuahua state Border Bridges Commission has control of the tolls and spending of the other border crossings in Juarez.
Ruben Jauregui, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said federal officials already routinely communicate with their counterparts in Mexico. However, “we applaud efforts to improve the border crossing experience on either side of the border. Border security is economic security,” he said.