New highway in Mexico creates opportunity for Weslaco agricultural economist

WESLACO  –  A new highway in Mexico may never enter the U.S., but it is taking Dr. Luis Ribera, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist in Weslaco, on the road.

Dr. Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, will take a new position in College Station in  international trade at the Texas A&M University System. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Dr. Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, will take a new position on international trade in College Station for the Texas A&M University System. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Because the highway will bring a flood of new imports east across Mexico for shipment from South Texas throughout the state and the U.S., Ribera will assume a new position at Texas A&M University in College Station where, among other things, he will be crunching trade and transportation numbers created by the influx.

“The new $2 billion highway in Mexico linking the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico is increasing the already high volume of trade between Mexico and Texas,” he said. “A major part of my new job will involve finding the most efficient and cost-effective means of moving goods from the new highway, across international bridges in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and into Texas and the rest of the U.S.”

Ribera has been the economist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco since July 2005. He will assume his new position as the international trade and transportation economist in August.

Because of the increased trade the new highway is generating, Ribera’s new position will be funded by both AgriLife Extension and Texas A&M AgriLife Research’s Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

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“Working in South Texas has been a great experience,” he said. “Agriculture is a very important industry here, so there was always a lot to do. And thanks to the year-round growing climate here, this is a prime agricultural location. The area has a lot of potential for the future, not just in maintaining the crops already grown here, but in growing bioenergy crops and more fruits and vegetables.”

Trucks carrying fresh produce and other goods will shave hours and hundreds of miles off their in their trek to reach the U.S. markets by taking the new highway to northeast Mexico.

“The U.S. has always been Mexico’s No. 1 trading partner, and Nogales, Arizona, has always been the No. 1 land port of entry for Mexican produce and goods,” he said. “But in 2010, Texas, and mainly the Lower Rio Grande Valley, surpassed Nogales in the number of Mexican truckloads. Projections show Nogales will never again catch up to Texas in truck traffic, especially now with the new highway, as fresh produce traffic is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next couple of years.”

The increased trade, Ribera said, is already evident.

“Import-export brokers are already moving here from Nogales,” he said. “And new facilities to handle the increased trade, like cold storage units and warehouses, have been built or are being constructed. The number of trucks moving produce and other goods here is expected to almost double in just the next two years.”

Mexican Federal Highway 40D, known as the Carretera Interoceanica, or inter-ocean highway, is one of Mexico’s greatest engineering feats, providing the country’s first major east-west corridor through the middle of northern Mexico, Ribera said. What was once shipped north through Arizona will now take a shorter route east to South Texas and beyond.

The new road has 63 tunnels and 115 bridges, including El Baluarte Bridge, the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world and the longest bridge in North America. El Baluarte spans one of the most treacherous mountain ranges in the western Sierra Madre known as El Espinazo del Diablo, or the Devil’s Backbone, he said.

“The highway will drastically cut down the amount of travel time it takes to get from the west coast of Mexico to the Valley,” Ribera said. “Then from here, it’s a much shorter route to larger markets like Houston, Dallas and the East Coast, than it is from Arizona.”

The increased trade will include more than agricultural products from Mexico.

“It won’t be just fresh produce moving from Mexico to Texas and the U.S., it will also include other products, including merchandise from Asia. Instead of docking in California, ships can now dock in Mazatlan and truck their goods across Mexico and into the U.S. through South Texas.”

Ribera’s new job will involve doing cost analyses on cheaper and faster methods of moving those goods.

“Moving trucks from Mexico through the Valley means crossing international bridges, which means delays, and time is money. So I’ll be looking, for example, at the economic feasibility of implementing expensive new technology to inspect cargo, or hiring and training more personnel to move trucks along faster.”

Ribera said duties at his new job will likely continue bringing him to South Texas.

“It’s a bitter-sweet move taking this new job,” he said. “I have enjoyed working with the very friendly people of this area, both in the community and among my co-workers in AgriLife Extension and AgriLife Research, but this new job is very exciting. International trade and transportation will play an increasingly important role in the economies of Texas and the country, so I’m really looking forward to getting started.”

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