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Transportation

Business is booming in the area as a result of soaring traffic in fruits and vegetables from Mexico, an increasingly sophisticated produce powerhouse that exports more fruits and vegetables to the U.S. than any other country.

“There are a lot of companies coming every week to the area,” said Joaquin Spamer, president of Colimar International Logistics, a Mission company that is expanding its cooling space to accommodate the increased amount of produce coming across the border. “I think this is just the beginning.”

Mexico exported $6.4 billion worth of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables into the U.S. last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. That was about 46 percent of all the fruits and vegetables exported to the U.S. and more than three times the amount shipped from the nation's second-leading fruit and vegetable source, Canada. The USDA figures the total value of fresh fruit and vegetable exports from Mexico grew slightly in the first five months of 2012 compared to the same period in 2010.

“Those people put a lot of food on our table in this country,” said Pharr Mayor Leo Palacios, Jr., who hopes to see the Pharr bridge keep expanding. “I never thought it was going to grow this big.”

More Texas producers, too, are growing their crops in Mexico to be able to feed a voracious year-round market for fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

“Mexico can produce when the U.S. cannot,” said Curtis DeBerry, president of Progreso Produce, a Boerne company that expanded production into Tampico, Mexico, almost 30 years ago and now grows 60 to 70 percent of its fruits and vegetables in several Mexican states.

“Consumers want the freshest produce they can get year-round. It's supposed to be there every day of the year,” said DeBerry.

While Arizona's ports have been the leading entryways for Mexican produce in the past, Texas' string of border crossings has claimed the top spot, according to the Texas Produce Association and the USDA. USDA data through June 2011 showed that approximately 3.8 billion pounds of produce moved through Texas ports from Mexico, about 170 million pounds more than Arizona, which previously held the top spot.

High diesel costs are forcing shippers to be more efficient, and a soon-to-be completed Mexican highway across the treacherous Sierra Madre Mountains between Mazatlán and Durango will make it easier for Mexican produce to move east out of lush growing regions on Mexico's west coast. Both factors could drive more traffic through Texas, officials said.

“If you ship produce from Mexico and want to go to Chicago or the East Coast, you can save $1,000 to $2,000 in diesel costs by coming through Texas,” said John McClung, Texas Produce Association president. “It's become easier and cheaper to come to Texas.”

The new highway, which is scheduled for completion next year, could bring twice as much produce to Texas ports, said Colimar's Spamer.

“It's a matter of logistics and money saved,” he said. “It's going to change things quite a bit.”

The Port of Brownsville also facilitates international movement of goods between Mexico and the United States, says spokesman Manuel Ortiz.

“You can move a ton of cargo further, safer, environmentally more friendly, cheaper, on one gallon of diesel than any other form of transportation," said Ortiz.

More than 95 percent of the fuel used in the lower Rio Grande Valley comes through here, as does the steel used in the production of home appliances, like refrigerators and washers and dryers, he added.

The port recently announced that Gulf Coast LNG Export had signed a lease for what could be the nation's largest export terminal for liquefied natural gas. The agreement came on the heels of a $150 million contract for Keppel AmFELS, a key tenant at the port, to refurbish a Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. deep-sea drilling rig.

Guillermo Nunez, executive director of an association representing importers of Mexican agricultural products into Texas, said hundreds of jobs should be added as transportation companies, cold storage providers and customs brokers expand to handle the new traffic.

Based in Edinburg, Mike's Loading Service is the largest locally owned trucking broker. Company officials say business has been on the rise for more than a year.

"Since we do a lot of general freight that needs to move — the staples for the supermarket and other basic goods — we weren’t affected by the recession as much as some other companies,” said General Manager David Rowland.

Total freight sales were up 88 percent in January and February in a year-over-year comparison, continuing a trend that has seen a gradual, tiered increase in sales. The positive trends reflect the stronger footing seen nationally for trucking companies as the tonnage shipped has now risen for 13 consecutive months. That strength bodes well for the entire economy because transportation is an indicator of how other key industries are fairing since trucks carry goods to a wide range of markets, suppliers and manufacturers. Company officials said most of the growth is in retail, with local produce distributors reporting a significant jump in their shipments as the Valley gains a greater share of Mexican produce that used to route through Arizona.

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