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Port Of Laredo Sees Gains In 2020, Despite Pandemic Disruptions

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Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
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Aerial photo of the World Trade Bridge in Laredo.

Trade between the U.S. and Mexico hit a snag this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing China to resume its place as the number one trading partner for the U.S. But Laredo, a top port for trade with Mexico, bounced back and has even seen growth in recent months.

In November, pallets of boxes filled a dock for inspection at the World Trade Bridge in Laredo, the busiest commercial crossing in the southwestern U.S.

“We have candles, we have avocado cooking sprays, so it's just a variety of different commodities that cross over here,” said Javier Vasquez, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s assistant port director for trade in Laredo.

Vasquez and customs workers have been busy because the flow of trade through the Port of Laredo ― made up of three commercial bridges, a railroad and an airport cargo facility ― has been rising. They had to expand their hours to keep up with traffic and to appease Mexican truck drivers upset about long crossing times.

“Sundays, we were partially open for four hours — we made adjustments and open for eight hours so that we can assist trade in crossing due to the increase of trucks crossing into the U.S.,” Vasquez said.

A truck travels on an overpass toward the World Trade Bridge, in Laredo, Texas.
A truck travels on an overpass toward the World Trade Bridge, in Laredo, Texas.

In October, trade at the Port of Laredo rose by 7.5% in comparison to October of 2019, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by WorldCity. Imports rose by 13.4% while exports dropped by 0.8%.

Because the bulk of trade for Laredo is auto parts, it saw a decline in traffic in the spring as auto manufacturers adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic. That caused a drop of 14.6% in Laredo’s trade through October.

But traffic has risen by at least a thousand trucks per day at the World Trade Bridge in recent months, compared to 2019 levels.

“By April and May, that's when we started seeing the 6000 trucks and plus a little bit over,” Vasquez said. “And then within a month and a half or two, we start seeing the increase back to normal, which was 7,000. And then we start seeing the actual increase in the 8,000s.”

The Colombia Solidarity Bridge, Laredo’s second-biggest commercial bridge, sees about 1,500 trucks a day, Vasquez said.

“It's amazing that the industry, whether it's manufacturing for automobiles or heavy equipment, produce avocados and tomatoes, and it's a kind of a new trending sector for Laredo, has exceeded pre-COVID levels in terms of international trade,” said Gene Lindgren, the president and CEO of the Laredo Economic Development Corporation.

Traffic backs up along the route to the border crossing from Mexico to the U.S. in Laredo, Texas in 2015. Mexico recently surpassed China and Canada as America's top trading partner, which helped catapult Laredo past Los Angeles to become the number one port in the country.
Traffic backs up along the route to the border crossing from Mexico to the U.S. in Laredo in 2015.

He said the LEDC is also starting to see the results of work in previous years to bring companies like Mission Produce to the Port of Laredo.

“One of the top three avocado companies in North America is building a very large 260,000 square foot refrigerator facility in the Pinnacle Industrial Park,” he said of Mission Produce’s Mega Distribution Center in Laredo, which broke ground this year. “And there are several other companies that our office is working to recruit, to also continue to maintain that momentum on this trend.”

Lindgren said they are looking to attract more companies in the perishables industry because their warehouses require more capital investment and can lead to more jobs.

The City of Laredo announced six produce and cold storage construction or expansion projects over the last year, according to Telco J. Garcia, the city’s economic development director. He says overall the city issued 28 warehouse construction permits, adding up to $113 million in value through the third quarter of 2020. That’s the highest value in at least six years, he said.

“Every time one of these facilities gets built they generate more traffic,” he said. “And that means more crossings over the bridges, and … at $23.75 a crossing for truck and trailer … that can add up pretty quick. It also means more jobs in the warehouses.”

Garcia and Lindgren attributed the growth in part to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which went into effect in July and promotes manufacturing and trade throughout North America.

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