TRUCKERS SHUN NEW US-MEXICO BRIDGE

TRUCKERS SHUN NEW US-MEXICO BRIDGE

For most of her 78 years, Petra Ramos has heard that prosperity is coming to her native Colombia, an isolated agricultural hamlet near the bank of the Rio Grande, 20 miles west of Laredo.

In the 1930s, she said residents thought their village's railway, destroyed during the Mexican Revolution 20 years earlier, would be rebuilt and the community would become a major port of entry like nearby Nuevo Laredo.But that never happened. Ms. Ramos said that three years ago residents believed their long wait for prosperity ended when the U.S. and Mexican governments approved the construction of an international bridge linking the sleepy hamlet with the United States.

But Colombia has yet to benefit from the eight-lane, $100 million Solidarity International Bridge completed two years ago. In fact, the span, designed for truck traffic, has hardly been used.

For many truckers, the bridge is too far from Nuevo Laredo and a connecting highway in Mexico is too narrow.

"I am afraid that it was a waste of money," Ms. Ramos said.

The Colombia bridge - the structure is known in South Texas and northern Mexico - was designed to handle 8,000 vehicles a day. For the first two years, it handled about 250 a day, about 3 percent of its capacity.

Since Aug. 23, the span has handled between 1,200 and 1,400 vehicles daily, or 15 percent of the projected use, because the Mexican government has ordered all truck drivers in Nuevo Laredo to use the new bridge for 90 days. The rerouting allows Nuevo Laredo to refurbish and expand an export lot near its two international bridges without any major traffic jams.

Bridge boosters said they hope that after the 90-day period, some of the drivers will keep using the new bridge. But many others say that is unlikely.

Most drivers and trucking companies say that if they had a choice, they would have kept using Nuevo Laredo's bridges, even if it meant getting stuck in lengthy traffic jams.

In addition to the narrow road to Colombia, the drivers and trucking companies say, the bureaucratic wait to cross the new bridge is about four hours, almost twice as long as in Nuevo Laredo.

The new bridge, some drivers say, has a smaller and less-experienced customs staff.

Miguel Arciniega, who transports cattle for a Nuevo Laredo carrier, said that before he started using the Solidarity Bridge, he was averaging about two trips a day.

Now he only has time for one load, said Mr. Arciniega, who gets paid about $20 a cargo.

"That means that I am losing about half of my pay," he said.

Mr. Arciniega's truck was in the middle of a lot the size of about two square blocks. About two dozen trucks were ahead of his, and another 10 tractor trailers were behind.

Before crossing the new bridge, the drivers park their trucks in the export lot and wait until a transmitador, a person who verifies cargo and proper documentation, tells them that they can cross to the United States.

Once they cross, the Mexican truck drivers go through U.S. Customs and then leave their cargo in a similar lot across the river. From there, a U.S. driver takes over. The Mexican driver returns in a truck without a trailer or hauls another trailer back to Mexico.

It is the same process, in reverse, when shipping goods from the United States.

Roberto Quintanilla is president of the Association of Cargo Services in Nuevo Laredo, a group of 86 trucking companies. He said his group is not happy about the rerouting either because the longer drive and the longer wait at the new bridge mean that everyone is paying at least 40 percent more in fuel costs and about 50 percent more in wages.

Although many drivers get paid by the trip, a large number of them are on salary, usually earning between $100 and $130 a week, regardless of the number of loads.

Mr. Quintanilla said that the trucking companies have not protested the government's decision because "if the government says this is temporary, we believe them."

But some of the drivers aren't sure that when the 90 days are up, they will be permitted to cross their cargo through Nuevo Laredo.

"We're stuck with this (Solidarity) bridge," predicted Antonio Gutierrez.

The Solidarity Bridge is a sharp contrast with the two bridges connecting Los Dos Laredos, as Nuevo Laredo and Laredo are known. There are times, particularly late afternoons, when bumper-to-bumper freight traffic is more than two miles long in either direction.

According to statistics from the city of Laredo, the two bridges handle almost 700,000 shipments annually in both directions, and the goods generate about $191 million in customs duties for the city, the state and the federal government.

Nuevo Laredo officials said that for Mexico, the two bridges generate about the same amount in customs duties, but all the money goes to the federal government, which in turn gives the city about 3 percent of the amount collected.

The southbound and northbound cargo, a combined $79.2 billion in 1992, consists mainly of machinery, computers, motor vehicles, electronics, textiles, dairy products and livestock.

The nearly 5 million tons of annual cargo have made Laredo and Nuevo Laredo the No. 1 land ports of entry in their respective countries. The loading zones and nearby warehouses are full of trailers waiting to be processed and cross the international bridges.

Civic and business leaders in south Texas and in Mexico say that despite the light use of the Solidarity Bridge during the first two years of its existence, the structure has a bright future, particularly if the proposed North American free-trade agreement is approved by the U.S. Congress.

Officials say the border is in critical need of more infrastructure and that the bridge will be a key commercial linkage to both countries.

But truck driver Antonio Gutierrez and others, who consider the structure a

financial failure, said the only reason the Solidarity Bridge was built is

because it is in Nuevo Leon, which is President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's home state.

Of the six Mexican states bordering the United States, Nuevo Leon was the only one not to have a port of entry, Mr. Gutierrez said.

Although Nuevo Laredo officials do not comment publicly about the bridge, before it was built many of them were openly against it because it meant that Nuevo Leon would benefit at the expense of Nuevo Laredo and the state of Tamaulipas.

Mr. Salinas "authorized this bridge to satisfy all the rich business people in Monterrey," Mr. Gutierrez said. "You tell me how this bridge so far away and in the middle of nowhere benefits Nuevo Laredo or Tamaulipas."

The Solidarity Bridge is part of a three-bridge system, which includes the other two bridges connecting Laredo with Mexico.

"The Colombia bridge is part of the pie and the pie is making and has always made money to pay for itself and bring revenues to the city," said Carlos Villarreal, Laredo's assistant city manager.

Luis Manuel Terrazas, the customs administrator in Nuevo Laredo, said the Mexican government believes that when the export lot is completed in Nuevo Laredo, some the drivers will keep using the Solidarity Bridge.

"I think that once they see the modern facilities that we have there, they will keep using it," he said. But some people don't see that happening. "I hate to say this," said Jim Giermanski, a professor of international trade at Laredo State University, "but until Mexico builds better roads and more infrastructure, they are not going to have much use for that bridge."

J. Jorge Verduzco, executive vice president at the International Bank of Commerce, said Mexico plans to build more and wider roads leading to the bridge. On the U.S. side, there is a proposal for a 22-mile toll road that would expedite the driving between the bridge and Interstate 35.

"We're operating on a 35-year plan," Mr. Verduzco said of those who call the bridge a failure. "And we expected to start adequate traffic in three to five years, not in a year or two."