For the Love of Lettuce

Yuma County is the nation’s third largest vegetable producer. The top crop is lettuce, with about 90% of the entire U.S. supply coming from Yuma during the winter months. Every day during peak agriculture season, thousands of workers make the trek north from Mexico to the Yuma area through the San Luis I Port of Entry. Thousands more cross the border daily to shop and do business in San Luis, Somerton and Yuma. Some travel by foot; others by bicycle or truck.

The San Luis II Port of Entry, five miles to the east, is a commercial port for trucks entering the United States for inspection. San Luis II opened in 2010 in an effort to ease congestion at San Luis I. Two additional lanes were added in 2012. However San Luis II remains under-utilized, operating at only 45% of capacity, while travelers passing through San Luis I continue to experience significant delays.

According to San Luis Mayor Gerardo Sanchez, the number of vehicle and pedestrian crossings at San Luis I has increased by 1 million annually in recent years up to 7.9 million in 2014. It is not uncommon for field workers to line up as early as 3:00 a.m. and wait over two hours to cross the border.

Fortunately, the problem has not gone unnoticed by local or federal authorities. Last fall, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration, Yuma County and city of San Luis  began street improvements in downtown San Luis, which were completed in June. The $11 million project segregates vehicles traveling to and from Mexico from those of shoppers patronizing businesses on Main Street. The project also upgrades traffic control devices and improves streets in the downtown area.

The Yuma Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (YMPO) approved a project in January to measure exactly how long pedestrians and cyclists are waiting to cross the border. The project will utilize a WiFi-based technology by Control Technologies to gauge line length in real-time. A consultant will analyze the data for YMPO.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) added both San Luis Ports to its list of priority projects for upgrades and expansions in an effort to reduce wait times. In San Luis I, border crossers will encounter eight new booths manned by CBP officers, all with improved real-time LED signage. New car lanes will also be added.

Local officials are requesting that San Luis II be modified to offload some of the private vehicles currently passing through San Luis I. However, this request has yet to be approved. The estimated cost for upgrades to both ports is $95 million.

While lettuce and other vegetables remain the lifeblood of Yuma and San Luis’s economy, the Greater Yuma Port Authority is anxious to diversity. Officials recently approved an industrial park located near the San Luis II Port of Entry. The industrial park is designed to lure tenants that export raw materials to Mexico for manufacturing into the final product. It could also generate more commercial traffic for San Luis II.

These are exciting time for southwestern Arizona. Our state’s strategic location offers many benefits. Lettuce may remain king, but new opportunities abound with a vibrant defense industry, manufacturing and advanced logistics. Yet, challenges remain. Ongoing partnership between local entities, ADOT and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will be necessary to make much-needed upgrades to both San Luis Ports in order for these opportunities to be fully realized.

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