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Borderlands: Vaccine mandate has varied impacts on Mexico cross-border trucking

Borderlands is a weekly rundown of developments in the world of United States-Mexico cross-border trucking and trade. This week: Vaccine mandate has varied impacts on Mexico cross-border trucking; Texas toll road truck traffic rises 57% year-over-year; Chinese ATV maker to build $152M plant in Mexico; and drug seizures surge at Texas-Mexico border.

Vaccine mandate has varied impacts on Mexico cross-border trucking

New regulations banning unvaccinated truckers from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have strained an already tight driver market, said Gerardo Alanis Barrios, CEO of Cold Chain Solutions in Laredo, Texas.

The U.S. on Jan. 22 began imposing COVID-19 vaccine requirements on all non-U.S. individuals entering the country at land ports of entry — notably along the Canadian and Mexican borders.

“Drayage capacity has been strained for the better part of two years. The vaccine mandate has come to dent it even more,” Barrios told FreightWaves. 

Barrios and other members of his family operate a group of companies unofficially called Grupo Alanis in Laredo and just across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The companies include transportation, cold storage, drayage, customs and logistics operations.

The U.S. allows Mexican trucks, called drayage trucks, to travel short distances northbound into the U.S. (generally a 25-mile zone) to drop off loads. The drayage trucking industry along the U.S.-Mexico border has hundreds of companies transporting supplies and finished products back and forth across the border daily. 

“In our fleet, about 4% of our drivers have refused to get vaccinated,” Alanis Barrios said. “Some argue they can’t get it because of medical conditions, while others simply don’t want unknown substances in their bodies. A few have gone so far as to ask for other jobs within the company to support their decision.”

Luis García, head of carrier relations at Nuvocargo, said the company saw a few northbound shipments in Mexico that were delayed heading to the U.S. after the vaccine requirements took effect.

New York-based Nuvocargo is a digital logistics platform for cross-border trade between the U.S. and Mexico. García works with carriers across Mexico to find capacity solutions for cross-border shipments.

“We’ve seen a few cases; one of our carriers had to change drivers last minute after they got results from an internal policy of testing that they carried out,” García said. “That made one of our pickups take two hours longer than expected.”

García said cross-border crossings have also been affected by drivers who test positive for COVID-19 taking sick leave. 

“They have reported that their drivers, most of them have accepted vaccines. However, what they’re suffering is sick leaves from their driver base and are hamstrung with capacity to move the loads and it is backlogging capacity,” García said.

Armando Taboada, assistant director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Laredo Field Office, said they encountered 111 noncompliant unvaccinated drivers the first three days after the requirements went into effect.

CBP’s Laredo field office oversees eight ports of entry along the Texas-Mexico border, including Laredo, Brownsville, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Hidalgo, Rio Grande City, Progresso and Roma.

“We were capturing the numbers the first few days to give us an idea,” Taboada said. “For the most part, I believe the carriers got the message that vaccine requirements were being enforced.”

Taboada said noncompliant drivers all returned to Mexico. Noncompliant drivers with empty trucks were returned with the tractor-trailer. Regardless of whether drivers were vaccinated, loaded shipments with merchandise were processed for import into the U.S.

“The noncompliant drivers with loaded shipments/trailers were temporarily held in the cargo import facilities,” Taboada said. “The noncompliant driver was sent back to Mexico, but the tractor/trailer with loaded shipment was allowed to proceed with a replacement vaccinated, compliant driver to keep the flow of trade moving. This was done at all of our ports of entry.”

Many in the freight industry feared the impact of the vaccine mandate would be longer wait times at the border, with prices spiking as a result. 

According to FreightWaves SONAR platform, detention wait times at the Laredo port of entry were at 124 minutes as of Jan. 23, slightly above the national average wait times at 121 minutes.

Wait times in Laredo have been steadily climbing since Jan. 9, making it difficult to gauge whether its normal seasonal patterns or the vaccine mandate affecting detention.

Chart: FreightWaves SONAR (WAIT.LRD). To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here

While the vaccine mandate has negatively impacted Barrios’ company, some other Laredo cross-border operators said they haven’t had significant issues.

“Everything is going well, because most of the international drivers already knew about it; most of them are vaccinated,” said Ermilo Richer III, executive director of Laredo-based customs broker Richer. “There’s a lot of support on the vaccine campaign from the city of Laredo and the U.S. Department of Transportation and different organizations that really made sure all the drivers that cross every day get vaccinated.”

Like the U.S., Canada has a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers. Mexico does not currently have a vaccine requirements to enter or leave the country.

Josefina Blanco, Nuvocargo’s legal and compliance lead, said cross-border shippers and carriers also need to be aware that Mexico and the U.S. have different approved vaccines.

The U.S. does not accept the Sputnik V and CanSino vaccines, which have been administered throughout Mexico.

“We have reached out to carriers, without asking them for the actual vaccine record or any sensitive data, if they were aware of who on their roster that is operating transfers that are vaccinated, if they are aware whether or not that vaccine is accepted,” Blanco said. 

Watch: FreightWaves’ Nate Tabak discusses the disruption the vaccine mandate has caused in Canada.

Texas toll road truck traffic rises 57% year-over-year

During 2021, tractor-trailer traffic on the Texas State Highway 130 toll road increased 57% year-over-year to 2.6 million trucks, according to the company that operates the public-private thoroughfare in the Lone Star State.

Officials at SH 130 Concession Co., which operates and maintains the section of the state-owned highway, said the year-over-year growth was fueled by a combination of a recovering economy, population growth and increased development along the corridor.

“The SH 130 corridor has quickly grown to become the epicenter of development in central Texas, attracting more local heavy truck and passenger traffic,” Doug Wilson, CEO of SH 130 Concession Co., said in a statement.

State Highway 130 runs 91 miles through central Texas. SH 130 Concession operates a private toll road that runs along a 41-mile stretch of the highway from just southeast of Austin south to Seguin, a town about 30 miles east of San Antonio.

“With Tesla recently opening its manufacturing facility on the corridor and a massive new Samsung facility on the horizon, we expect these development and traffic trends along this corridor to continue,” Wilson said.

Passenger vehicle traffic jumped 64% year-over-year in 2021 to 9.8 million motorists on the SH 130 toll road. Passenger and tractor-trailer traffic increased a combined 64% year-over-year, a record for the toll road.

Despite the increase, the number of accidents decreased 13% to 34 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the fewest accidents on SH 130 since 2018. 

Chinese ATV maker to build $152M plant in northern Mexico

Hisun Motors Corp. recently announced it will build a $152 million plant in the city of Saltillo, Mexico.

The 1.5 million-square-foot factory will create 1,500 jobs. Hisun is a manufacturer of all-terrain and utility-terrain vehicles.

It is scheduled to start operations in May with the production of 5,000 vehicles for export across the North American market. The factory could produce as many as 50,000 units annually by 2024, officials said.

Hisun, which was founded in 1988, is based in Chongqing, China. The company has its North American headquarters in McKinney, Texas.

Drug seizures surge at Texas-Mexico border, authorities report

More than $780 million worth of illegal narcotics were seized across eight ports of entry in South Texas during fiscal year 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Laredo reports.

That represents a decline of 4% compared to fiscal year 2020, when $821 million worth of illegal drugs were seized by CBP’s Laredo field operations. CBP’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

CBP’s Laredo field operations include ports of entry in Brownsville, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, Hidalgo, Rio Grande City, Progresso and Roma.

Seizures of fentanyl rose 1,066% year-over-year in fiscal year 2021, while seizures of cocaine rose 98%.

“Faced with significantly less traffic due to travel restrictions imposed for public health reasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the drug and contraband threat remained the same,” Randy J. Howe, CBP’s director of field operations, Laredo, said in a statement. “Our significant gains in fentanyl and cocaine seizures underscore the deadly nature of the contraband we encounter.”

CBP also seized 41,713 pounds of marijuana, 1,215 pounds of heroin, $10.4 million in unreported currency, 463 weapons and 84,863 rounds of ammunition during the lastest fiscal period.

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