On July 2, 2013, Representative Niland tasked Mayor Leeser with implementing an infrastructure fee at the Bridge of the Americas in order to reduce air quality problems, reduce traffic congestion and increase trade. She alluded to Beto O’Rourke’s leadership at the federal level as spearheading this initiative. The motion passed six to one, with Representative Holguin voting nay. But, Niland’s entire presentation was based on requiring tolls on the free bridge which is not possible under a US-Mexico treaty. Niland’s entire presentation and her agenda item were nothing more than a gimmicky move to grandstand before the electorate.
Niland acknowledged that one of the Chamizal Treaty obligations is keeping the bridge free of tolls and that there are many other factors that have to be addressed before even considering modifying that requirement. Not only does the city have to address its own mobility issues in and around the international bridge and all feeder streets but ultimately any attempt to toll the commercial traffic will require agreements and commitments from three state governments; Chihuahua, New Mexico and Texas. Such a move would also require the city to come to an understanding with the county government. Even if those impediments were to somehow be overcome, both federal governments; Mexico and the United States would need to come to an agreement, not only in tolling the traffic but also in modifying the Chamizal Treaty.
Although the potential for millions of dollars of income into the general fund is enticing, especially because of the annual budget process, the question that no one seems to ask, is whether this is something the city should focus on at this time when the city has many more immediate issues that it needs to address, like the ballpark.
At first blush, Niland seems to not understand the ramifications of her proposal but in reality it gives her the opportunity to grandstand as a leader “looking out for the health and welfare of a marginalized population” that coincidently she herself has marginalized through her support of the Hunt-Foster gentrification of El Paso. As an added bonus, Niland gets to pontificate during the budget process that she is looking at bringing in “millions” in additional revenues to the city’s coffers.
The problem though, is that the ability for this administration to get this initiative to a point of getting the necessary support by the diverse special interests is very unlikely. In other words, this action is nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors and a distraction of city issues that need attention and can be addressed by this administration. For Niland, this action appears as nothing more than grandstanding to deflect criticism of her actions.
It is important to understand the biggest impediment to Niland’s fantasy of tolling commercial traffic, the treaty between Mexico and the United States that came about because the Rio Bravo, as it is known in Mexico, better known in El Paso as the Rio Grande had changed direction. This led to a dispute between the two countries over who owned the land around the river’s new course.
Nothing is more passionate in the annals of Mexican international diplomacy then the Chamizal Treaty.
An 1848 treaty settled the US-Mexico border after the US-Mexican War. It established part of the northern border as the river. After the river changed course, leaving formerly Mexican land on the US side of the border and US land on the Mexican side, a disagreement arose as to whether the border was marked mathematically, as in longitude and latitude, or ambiguously via a natural border, subject to changes. The treaty itself referred to both techniques for establishing the border.
From 1866 until about 1890 numerous altercations between land owners on both sides of the border resulted because of the changing river’s course and the lack of specificity about the border. On December 4, 1897, both governments formerly agreed that neither could agree to where the border actually was, based on the treaty. The United States pushed forth that a third party, not native to either Mexico or the United States should be designated to referee the disagreement and make the final decision.
Mexico, for its part, pointed out that the 1889 Convention that established the original working process did not have a provision naming a third-party commissioner with decision making authority therefore naming one would require a new agreement between the governments that would require the affirmative vote by both nations’ legislative bodies.
The border dispute remained unresolved until July 19, 1907 when Mexican Ambassador to the United States, Enrique Creel proposed having Canada designate an arbiter to settle the dispute. During this time, lack of access to water by Cd. Juárez and disputes between landowners with competing deeds from Mexico and the United States were becoming critical. El Paso’s growth to the south was hampered by the uncertainty of the border line dispute that remained in limbo until 1962.
In June of 1962, Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos and John F. Kennedy agreed to finally settle the dispute. On August 29, 1963 a treaty was signed by both countries that not only stipulated mathematically the border between both nations but also created a mechanism for managing the river’s flow.
The residents of El Paso were overwhelmingly against the treaty. Numerous protests were held in El Paso against the perception that Washington was giving US land away. On January 14, 1964, the Chamizal Treaty, having been approved by the legislative bodies of both countries, became final.
On October 28, 1967, US President Lyndon B. Johnson and Mexican President Gustavo Días Ordaz met at the Paso del Norte bridge, also known as the Córdova bridge, to formally transfer the agreed upon lands and accept the agreed upon international dividing line. As a result of this, Bowie High School was built on land formerly belonging to Mexico and numerous government buildings were built by Mexico on land formerly belonging to the US.
One of the most important provisions of the Chamizal agreement was that all four international bridges in existence at the treaty’s implementation had to be kept. Specifically detailed in Article 10 of the treaty, was that one bridge, the Córdova bridge, better known as the free bridge must always remain free of tolls, unless both federal governments agreed to place a tariff on it. This bridge is officially designated as the Puente de Las Americas. The original bridge was built on October 28, 1967.
Because this bridge was free but was not originally designed for heavy commercial traffic it soon became apparent that the bridge could not sustain the heavy commercial traffic using it. It wasn’t until 1988 that both governments decided to agree to build a new structure. Private transportation companies, who heavily benefited from the toll-free traffic, offered to fund designated traffic lanes on the new bridge reserved for commercial traffic. Both governments accepted the offer. Four lanes were reserved for private vehicles while an additional two lanes were added for commercial traffic, each direction.
In 2008, then Congressman Silvestre Reyes looked into the possibility of changing the terms of the treaty to allow tolling on the only toll-free bridge on the US-Mexico border. As soon as this became apparent, Mexican business leaders vowed to fight the idea. As it was then, it is still true today; international business entities will fight any attempt to toll the commercial traffic.
In July 2011, city council unanimously adopted a resolution spending $1.7 million to automate the collection of tolls at the Zaragosa and Stanton Street bridges. During council discussion the city noted that twenty-percent of the money collected was in Mexican Pesos. Cortney Niland stated that she would not support spending more money to have the automated collectors accept both US and Mexican currency. She supported only US currency machines.
And after a property tax increase in August of 2011, Cortney Niland directed the city manager to look for ways to toll the free bridge. Niland acknowledged that the Chamizal Treaty requires a toll-free bridge but she nonetheless stated that she believed that this could be changed.
And now, on July 2, 2013, Niland was again pitching her tolling idea asserting that it would generate about $12 million for the city. She used data collected from a 2010 city government study, commissioned by the city and the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority that examined bridge waiting times and looked at implementing tolls.
But it was all a road show for Niland to create the illusion that she is concerned about the welfare of children and bringing in much needed revenues to offset the expenditures she has recently encumbered upon the taxpayers’ of the community. Her public pronouncements before council were nothing more than grandstanding for her upcoming elections. Cortney Niland knows full well that tolling the free bridge is next to impossible but that did not stop her from using those numbers to grandstand.
In the end, what city council adopted had little to nothing to do with the numbers and the lives of children that Niland bantered about. What city council adopted during the meeting was tasking the mayor and the city manager to look for ways to implement an infrastructure fee at the Texas Department of Transportation Border Safety Inspection site at the bridge. This measure, unlikely to be adopted any time soon, will do nothing for the children’s health or bring in the “millions” she alludes to.
In other words, it was just a waste of time for everyone, except maybe for Niland.