The new $11 million facility, a stone's throw from the aging building it will replace, has sat idle while power lines and transformers able to handle the increased electricity needs of the site were installed by the Deming Electricity Cooperative at the federal government's expense.
Along with a new 11,000-square-foot port of entry building, the site is also home to a forward operating base with living quarters to house up to 16 Border Patrol agents working multi-day shifts.
With the power upgrade finished, border officials expect a formal grand opening in the next two months.
Bill Mattiace, executive director of the New Mexico Border Authority, said even if the new facility had opened two years ago, it probably would not have seen a surge in passenger vehicles, because the Mexican government has not finished paving a dirt road that connects the port to a major highway south of the border.
"Maybe that bad timing turned out to be a good deed," Mattiace said. "Tourists from Mexico need that road. Right now, it's almost difficult to travel."
With the nation reeling from the onset of recession, New Mexico's congressional delegation announced in early 2009 that Antelope Wells had been selected for a major upgrade, to be financed with economic stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The Department of Homeland Security had allocated $15 million for the project that was aimed, in part, at bringing the port up to post-9/11 security standards by moving it farther back from the border. A new port with modern equipment also would be better able to detect smuggled drugs and other hazards.
A previous state economic development secretary also expressed hope that a new port would be attractive to Mexican tourists, assuming the access road on the Mexican side of the border was widened and paved.
The old port of entry has definitely seen better days. Strips of duct tape have been applied to the front door of the 1,400-square-foot cinderblock building to prevent the cracked glass pane from crumbling. Outside, next to the car lane, is a battered metal chair, its cushion torn and stuffing sticking out.
A few hundred feet north of the Mexican border, marked these days by miles of Normandy-style steel vehicle barriers, is the gleaming new facility. Along with sunlit offices, it comes complete with two vehicle lanes equipped with radiation-detection equipment; two garage bays, one with a hydraulic lift to permit easy inspections of vehicle undercarriages; and two dog kennels to house the drug-sniffing canines that are not currently assigned to the port.
Whether the beefed up facility is necessary may be a matter of debate. Border Authority member Martha Skinner of Columbus noted that Antelope Wells, the least used of New Mexico's three ports, is a generally sleepy facility.
The state Economic Development Department issued a press release Friday to tout record-breaking traffic at the other two ports, but did not mention Antelope Wells. The press release noted that in 2012, the Santa Teresa port processed 81,339 commercial trucks, or 13 percent more than any other year on record, while the Columbus port processed 10,627 commercial trucks, 18 percent more than its previous high.
Meanwhile, Antelope Wells, which does not handle commercial truck traffic and is open only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., processed 2,835 passenger vehicles in 2012, an average of eight cars per day and a 63 percent drop from 2011. Another 1,506 buses flowed through the port in 2012, an average of four per day.
The failure to align an adequate power supply with completion of the new port arose when Customs and Border Protection decided to pursue a second project at the same site: construction of a 5,000-square-foot forward operating base to house up to 16 Border Patrol agents, and a new communication tower.
"Construction of this co-located facility required adjustments to the existing electrical service initially designed" just for the port of entry, wrote Roger Maier, an El Paso-based spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.
The forward operating base was in the planning stages in early 2011, but construction did not begin until October 2011. That's when the agency was advised the power supply would not meet the needs of the completed project, Maier said.
It took until August 2012 for the power upgrade project to be put out to bid, Maier said, and Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers awarded the $500,000 project to the Deming-based Columbus Electric Cooperative in September. The job began in October and was completed in December. The port of entry was powered up Jan. 16, and the forward operating base on Jan. 18.
Maier said a few cosmetic tasks remain to be done, such as striping the parking lot, seeding grass and installing some signage. Those jobs are expected to be done by next month.
Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero said the forward operating base could not be completed until an adequate power supply was provided.
"It's good to go. We've got juice, we've got power," Cordero said, "but we couldn't move on other things . . . until power was done."