The recent U.S.-Mexico Sister Cities Summit in Guadalajara revolved around “Independence & Interdependence” and focused on celebrating the historical ties between the United States and Mexico. The theme could not have been more timely and relevant given the current social and political rhetoric in both countries, which often diminishes the value of our historical and geographic relationship.

The inextricable issues of trade and security were key topics of discussion at the summit, but one overarching question was: What lessons have local communities learned?

Participants agreed that municipalities need not wait for federal leadership to improve trade and security. In fact, we have seen recent examples of local communities initiating efforts for bilateral cooperation that in turn have spurred state and federal governments to follow.

In the face of fiscal and political challenges at the federal level, the public-private partnership model has proven to be a basis for success in using local government and private-sector funding to solve challenges that have historically been within the federal realm. In other words, local communities can use this model to push the federal government toward solutions that don’t necessarily rely on federal money.

The public-private partnership model proved its value in 2016 when the Border Trade Alliance (BTA), a grassroots advocacy organization that pushes for better policies across all three NAFTA countries, successfully led efforts to pass the Cross-Border Trade Enhancement Act, championed by U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Building on a previous pilot program, this legislation provides a framework for local entities – both public and private – to reimburse federal agencies for staffing costs. It has also supplied a process for the donation of capital assets in order to enhance infrastructure and expand hours of operation at busy ports of entry.

Border communities in Texas have formed the South Texas Assets Consortium (STAC) to leverage funds to expand operations at places like the Pharr International Bridge, which is thriving with agricultural and other products moving both north and south. STAC even succeeded in lobbying the Texas Legislature for grant funding to support its efforts.

Another innovative example of a local community utilizing the public-private partnership model to attract private investment for bilateral solutions is the Cross-Border Xpress (CBX), a privately-owned pedestrian crossing provides secure access from San Diego directly into the Tijuana International Airport. This infrastructure solution provides travelers with affordable options to destinations not available at the capacity-limited San Diego International Airport. On Feb. 5, Hainan Airlines announced it will begin nonstop service from Tijuana to Beijing on March 22, the first such service from Mexico to Beijing.

The Cali-Baja region offers still other examples of locally-led, bilateral infrastructure solutions, including a utility-scale wind power project in the Mexican state of Baja California that provides power to San Diego via a cross-border transmission line – a project funded by the San Antonio-based North American Development Bank (NADBank).

Then there’s the still-in-development Otay Mesa East border crossing, an initiative led by the San Diego Council of Governments, with strong advocacy from area chambers of commerce. This project presents a unique and immediate opportunity to modernize the way in which we build cross-border infrastructure: this plan proposes creating a framework for the development and construction of a single, cross-border project, rather than the historically inefficient method of building ports of entry as two separate projects – one on each side of the border, with separate administrators, budgets, and schedules. There is strong local political and financial will to pursue such innovation; what it lacks is the proper legal and diplomatic framework.

“Otay Mesa East will be a locally-led success, but reaching agreement on toll collection, revenue sharing, and design has been challenging,” said Paola Avila, Border Trade Alliance chairwoman and vice president for International Business Affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The lesson being learned is that you can have all the stars in alignment, but if you lack the governing structure to make it happen, such as a single entity with authority in both countries, it can remain challenging.”

Avila also noted that the U.S. and Mexican governments, which jointly fund NADBank, are poised to expand  the bank’s authority to play such a supra-national role in project development.

Local communities have demonstrated that they have the will, expertise, and financial resources to solve cross-border challenges. Local leaders in border state communities with strong ties to Mexico, such as San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, San Diego, and others must continue to advocate for the tools for locally-led success.

Organizations such as Sister Cities International, the Border Trade Alliance, the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition, and others provide the venue for advocacy and collaboration. Bilateral innovation can save NAFTA and help solve trade and security challenges, so that we can continue to strengthen the cultural and economic ties that in a place like San Antonio have persisted through the challenges of political ebbs and flows, and changed borders and demographics for 300 years.

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Juan Antonio Flores

Juan Antonio Flores is executive vice president for government affairs at Port San Antonio and currently serves as vice president of the San Antonio-Mexico Friendship Council. His prior professional experience...