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The process for approving international bridge projects in South Texas, intended to increase commerce between the U.S. and Mexico, is speeding up after President Joe Biden signed into law a policy change pushed by a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, led the effort to set a maximum 120-day timeline for the president to decide whether to approve a permit. The previous process used by the Biden administration required an environmental review — which could take years — before the president could decide on a permit.
The policy change was part of the National Defense Authorization Act that Biden signed into law three days before Christmas.
Cruz and Cuellar touted the policy change at a news conference Thursday, with Cruz calling it a “tremendous bipartisan victory for Texas.” They were joined by Mexican officials and Glenn Hamer, head of the Texas Association of Business. Hamer said it was the “most significant effort to increase commerce since the passage of the” United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2020.
Cruz and Cuellar spoke from the World Trade Bridge in Laredo, the site of one project they were aiming to speed up. The project would expand the bridge by more than doubling the number of lanes, from eight to 18.
Under the new law, the U.S. State Department has 60 days to recommend to the president whether to approve a permit for an international bridge project in South Texas. After that, the president has 60 days to approve the permit, and if he does not act, the permit is automatically granted.
The provision applies specifically to at least three international bridges in Webb, Cameron and Maverick Counties that have applied for a permit between Dec. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2024.
Environmental reviews must still be done before construction, but they will no longer hold up the permitting decision.
Cruz has argued the previous policy was actually bad for the environment. He said Thursday that the permitting delays meant trucks were backed up for miles — “spewing pollution into the air” — waiting to cross bridges that needed improvements.
The policy change had the support of Cruz and Texas’ senior senator, Republican John Cornyn, as well as Cuellar and the rest of the South Texas delegation: Reps. Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen; Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen; and Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio.
“If you want to see bipartisanship, this is the type of bipartisan work that gets the job done,” Cuellar said at the news conference.
The new law also comes as Cruz is up for reelection this year and looking for bipartisan accomplishments to tout. One of the Democrats vying to challenge him, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, is running on a platform of being able to work across the aisle.
In Maverick County, the new policy will help the proposed Puerto Verde Global Trade Bridge in Eagle Pass. The project is promising to cut down on growing wait times in the region while also offering enhanced security measures.
Ruben Garibay, the Laredo developer behind the project, said permitting experts previously told him that a presidential permit “could take as long as 12 years.” Now he is able to expect a permit decision by springtime.
“We really need this,” he said, calling the new policy “huge.”
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