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Pharr out! Key border bridge in Texas doubling in size

PHARR, Texas — Spanish and English words are juxtaposed on many of the thousands of tractor-trailers that constantly rumble across the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, carrying about $150 million worth of goods daily between the U.S. and Mexico.

Since it opened in 1994, the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge has been one of the busiest commercial ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border. The city of Pharr, which operates the bridge, has reshaped itself over the decades from a small, dusty agricultural community into a booming border trade hub.

Trade at the South Texas border port totaled a record $42 billion in 2021 — a number that could skyrocket in the near future, as the city has been working on a project to build a second commercial bridge alongside the existing one.

“We are expanding because it’s a need, the demand is there,” Luis Bazán, director of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, told FreightWaves. “Even through the pandemic, crossings skyrocketed in Pharr. We’re at 26% trade growth year-over-year [from 2020 to 2021], combined imports and exports — that is a telltale sign that good things are coming, production is booming.”

The bridge expansion project is a joint U.S.-Mexico venture. The cost of the U.S. side of the second span, which is being funded by the city, will be around $45 million and is 1.5 miles long. It will connect with another 1.5-mile portion of the bridge that Mexico is building at roughly the same cost south of the border. 

In conjunction with the existing bridge at Pharr, the second bridge will create the Rio Grande Valley’s largest international cargo crossing with Mexico once completed. Land has already been cleared and Pharr officials are ready to begin construction once all hurdles have been cleared. No timetable has been set yet.

The next step for the Pharr bridge expansion is an environmental assessment, Bazán said. The environmental assessment is part of a federal process, with officials meeting in April to discuss it further. 

“The outlook is very good, very positive for future growth,” Bazán said. “There’s a need for this and we have to keep positioning ourselves regionally, to attract new domestic and foreign business investments, which in turn entails bringing in more commercial truck crossings.”

The valley is already seeing an increase in international trade, boosted by growing demand for consumer goods along with new opportunities created by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), said Sergio Contreras, president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.

“What we’ve seen in 2020 and 2021 is a huge demand for commercial industrial space in the valley, to the point where the cities of Pharr, McAllen and Weslaco are investing in additional warehousing space and industrial parks,” Contreras said. “There is a big demand for cold storage space for fresh produce, and warehouses for dry products are also in need.”

The McAllen, Texas-based Rio Grande Valley Partnership is a nonprofit organization that encourages collaboration among counties of the Rio Grande Valley and advocates for business in the region.

Located at the southernmost tip of Texas on the Mexican border, the Rio Grande Valley has more than 1 million residents and includes the cities of McAllen, Pharr, Brownsville, Harlingen, Weslaco, Edinburg, Mission, San Juan and Rio Grande City.

“Locally, we hear from a lot of folks that are expanding and looking for space, in manufacturing, logistics and cold storage,” Contreras said. “When we get calls from people that are not from here, typically they are developers looking for land that want to open warehouses or cold storage space for tenants. They are looking for opportunities to invest in the valley.”

The Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge was the No. 29-ranked port among U.S. gateways in January, with trade with the world totaling $3.7 billion for the month. 

“Our top commodities consist of produce, oil and gas products, automotive, technology products, machinery, and medical goods,” Bazán said.

The bridge is the No. 1 border crossing in the U.S. for imported Mexican produce. More than 65% of all imported produce in the U.S. comes over the bridge, including avocados, strawberries, blueberries, pineapples, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruits, asparagus and more. Imports of produce topped more than $700 million in January.

The No. 1 export category from Pharr into Mexico is petroleum, fuels and liquefied natural gases, almost $600 million in January.

In 2021, 720,294 commercial trucks crossed the bridge, 8% more than in 2020. Adding a second bridge alongside the current one could accommodate thousands of additional trucks a day, Bazán said. 

“On any given day on the current bridge, we’re doing anywhere between 5,000 to 6,000 trucks daily in and out, import and export,” Bazán said. “We’re running roughly close to 3,000 trucks a day just northbound alone. It’s a consistent flow; we’re very fortunate to have all the trade that’s going through the bridge.” 

The bridge connects Texas to the Mexican city of Reynosa. It currently has four lanes, handling both commercial and passenger vehicles.

The second bridge will create four additional lanes, allowing Pharr to completely separate trucks and cars, while dedicating lanes for empty, full truckload, certified freight and passenger vehicles.

The goal is to increase capacity and “reduce wait times for trucks on the bridge,” Bazán said.

According to FreightWaves’ SONAR platform, wait times (WAIT.MFE) at Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge increased about 17% to 121 minutes between March 6 and March 13. 

FreightWaves’ SONAR platform shows that wait times are sitting at about 125 minutes on average across markets near U.S.-Mexico ports of entry. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.

While overall trade is up at the Pharr bridge, the number of northbound truck crossings declined about 6% on average per month between October 2021 and February 2022.

Bazán said Mexican factories that export goods to the U.S. are still being affected by disruptions from lack of semiconductors, as well as the pandemic.

“The decline in northbound trucks started back during the beginning of the pandemic, when the automotive sector in Mexico took a huge hit. We’re still seeing the aftereffects of that,” Bazán said.

The decline in northbound trucks has been alleviated at Pharr by an increase in southbound freight, mostly petroleum and other fuels being exported from the U.S. to Mexico.

“The energy sector has come in and driven us up on the southbound,” Bazán said. 

For local trucking company owners like Simon Ruiz, demand for capacity at the Pharr port of entry has been booming. The Pharr-based carrier offers dry van, flatbed and reefer truck services.

“Right now, we are transporting a lot of home goods and a lot of automotive components,” said Ruiz, CEO of US Inter-Transport.

Ruiz started US Inter-Transport with one truck in early 2020, a few months before the pandemic started shutting down businesses across the country. Today, the carrier has more than 90 trucks and is still growing.

“It was a bit concerning obviously when the pandemic started, but we kind of rode the wave — the demand was all for essential goods — water, toilet paper, food, dry goods and perishable goods and then obviously a lot of home goods,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said his biggest problem isn’t finding loads, it’s finding available trucks, trailers and drivers.

“Luckily, early on we were able to acquire trucks and trailers that are unattainable today,” Ruiz said. “The last set of trucks I bought I had to pay today’s market price, which is maybe 40% to 50% more than what it was two years ago.”

Contreras said adding the second bridge, along with opening more warehouses and cold storage space, and investing in more roadway infrastructure will help companies like US Inter-Transport.

“The more we are able to invest in the bridge and infrastructure in the valley — to be able to process more trucks, expedite the crossings, ensuring that that there’s staff and technology to get it done, to inspect and to protect the trade — the better it is to be able to continue growing the economy in the valley,” Contreras said.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Noi Mahoney.

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