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CBP Public Private Partnerships: Key to Improving Security of Nation’s Ports of Entry

CBP Public Private Partnerships: Key to Improving Security of Nation’s Ports of Entry Homeland Security TodayAs federal agencies grapple with the challenge to make every dollar count in an era of constrained budgets and limited resources, Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) public-private partnerships have been a critical tool to meeting the demands of the nation’s ports of entry without spending additional taxpayer dollars.  

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security held a hearing earlier this month to discuss the importance of these partnerships to preserving the economic health and security of the nation.

In today’s budget environment, CBP has experienced staffing shortages and other resource constraints despite the increasing demands on the agency as the volume of traffic continues to grow. Air passenger rates have grown at a rate of 4 to 5 percent a year and there has been a 24 percent increase in cargo containers since the Great Recession.

The Fiscal Year 2014 Appropriations Act established a pilot program allowing CBP to enter into public private partnerships to pay for additional officer hours, and to accept donations of real and personal property such as new inspection booths, computers and scanning equipment.

According to subcommittee chairman Candice Miller (R-Mich), while Congress has appropriated more than $2 billion for port of entry construction over the past several years, an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion is needed to fully modernize our ports of entry.

“The commerce that moves through the nation’s ports of entry powers our economy, drives job creation and is fundamental to our way of life,” Miller said. “If ports of entry shut down, or traffic is backed up – millions of dollars may be lost, economic growth comes to an abrupt halt, travelers find other destinations to visit and would-be customs revenue destined for the US Treasury goes away.”

Miller added, “Despite the importance of ports of entry to the nation’s economic health, port of entry modernization efforts have been significantly underfunded, and Customs and Border Protection staffing has not kept pace with growing demand.”

According to John Wagner, CBP’s deputy assistant commissioner for field operations, many ports of entry require significant modernization to meet operational standards. Several ports of entry along land borders were built more than 70 years ago and require renovation or replacement.

Wagner said even those constructed more recently need modernization “to address growing demands for additional processing capacity, new security requirements and enforcement technologies and the need to maximize the efficiency of existing personnel and resources."

He said, “Infrastructure enhancements are critical to the improvement of trade and travel facilitation; these changes are necessary to support current traffic volumes and modern technology.”

To support ports of entry modernization efforts amid current budget constraints, Congress authorized pilot programs allowing CBP and the General Services Administration (GSA) to enter into public-private partnerships. Tapping the expertise of the private sector has helped CBP develop new approaches to address staffing gaps, as well as construction and modernization needs.

Sam F. Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company (STAC)—a privately owned port of entry in Rio Grande City, Texas and one of the five pilot partners —said the partnerships have given the trade community a viable option to work in tandem with CBP to supplement staffing levels and improve infrastructure.

Vale said Section 559 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 has allowed members of STAC to secure overtime hours for CBP officers and improving staff levels during peak border-crossing activities. For example, El Paso has used the program to fund overtime for current CBP officers working to keep all lanes open during peak hours for pedestrian, POV and commercial truck lanes.

“This new option available to STAC and the other Sec. 559 and 560 partners with CBP makes a real, positive difference for border communities and even the nation,” Vale said. “The National Center for Risk and Economic Analysisof Terrorism Events atthe University of Southern California found in 2013 that the addition of just one CBP officer can inject $2 million into the US economy and create 33 jobs.”

“Quite simply, trade means jobs," Vale added. "Thirty-eight million jobs depend on international trade; 6 million on trade with Mexico. More importantly, the private sector cannot wait until the government makes the necessary budget corrections to meet the market-driven demands of trade and commerce.” Despite the benefits, the program has also received criticism.

Skeptics of the program have expressed concern that the reimbursable service agreements have set an unhelpful precedent by shifting to local governments and the private sector responsibilities that should be borne solely by the federal government as part of its obligation to manage the nation’s borders. However, Vale noted that these agreements are crucial to the economic health of the nation. Prior to these agreements, there were no options to alleviate long backups at ports of entry, which impacted competitiveness.

“We are sensitive to critics’ arguments and, in a perfect world, would prefer that federal budget allocations were able to keep pace with growing trade volumes,” Vale said in response. “It simply is not in our DNA to pay for what is an obligation of the federal government. But these reimbursable services agreements have given the trade community something it did not have before: choice.”

Vale believes we will see a rise in the popularity of the program once investors witness the viability of the program and gain the confidence to start making the financial commitments necessary to “bring a project to completion and realize a return.”

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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