Arizona is a key point of distribution for much of the nation’s fresh fruit and vegetables, with produce moving through the Arizona Department of Transportation’s ports of entry before heading north into the United States.

But there was a bottleneck. Outdated facilities and restrictive policies were causing produce to go bad before reaching the distribution centers a few miles north of the border. Long lines at inspection stations and different weight requirements presented two challenges that some innovative thinking could solve.

Arizona, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Highway Administration have invested millions of dollars to upgrade our ports of entry and adjacent highways into the U.S. to ease congestion and speed the process of necessary inspections. At the Mariposa Port of Entry, for example, more than $200 million is currently being invested to rebuild the port and make roadway improvements. As a result, the throughput of freight traffic bringing produce and other goods into Arizona is being greatly expanded.

When dealing with produce, speed means fresh. But speed cannot sacrifice safety or security.

Another challenge was more of a policy issue that simply needed a new approach to resolve. Mexican trucks can be loaded heavier than we generally allow on U.S. highways. It was costing shippers time, money and lost freshness when moving a 90,000 pound load to the border, only to be forced to cut it down to 80,000 pounds to enter Arizona. Breaking loads down is also a security concern. Loads that are sealed at the point of origin and then remain sealed as they cross the border are much less likely to contain contraband. Customs and Border Protection officers understand that breaking down a sealed load invites security violations.

Keeping these concerns in mind, ADOT and the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas worked together to better facilitate the smooth movement of produce at the border and up to 25 miles north. Now, Mexican trucks can obtain an overweight permit for each load. These permits, at a cost of $75 each, avoid shippers having to transfer produce between trucks or moving “short loads.” The maximum weight of 90,800 pounds was carefully calculated by ADOT safety engineers as the maximum safe weight for standard five-axle trucks.

The revenue from those permits is returned to the Highway User Revenue Fund, which is distributed to cities, towns, counties and ADOT for various road and bridge projects. This is an innovation that pays for itself. So far, more than $2.4 million has been generated from the issuance of these permits, but the real benefit is the success in speeding the process for moving produce from Mexico to American tables.

These innovations are possible because government and industry – both north and south of the border – worked together to uphold high standards for safety and security while addressing clear challenges. That is what has made Arizona a leader in trade with Mexico, and that’s a position we intend to maintain through continued partnership and problem solving that transcends bureaucracy.

These are just two examples of progressive planning and forward-thinking that makes Arizona stand apart in our efforts to enhance the competiveness of international trade. Now that’s something to think about when enjoying your next tomato or watermelon.

John Halikowski is Director of the Arizona Department of Transportation. Lance Jungmeyer is President of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

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