Local merchants say they are pleased with the first phase of renovation at the Morley Avenue border crossing in downtown Nogales, but completion of project, meant to expedite the flow of pedestrians from Mexico into the United States, remains uncertain.

During phase one, crews installed a new waist-high fence and added two workstations to help reduce wait times at the pedestrian-only gate, which funnels border-crossers into the Morley Avenue shopping hub.

“The main thing was to get additional workstations out there so we could process more travelers,” said Brian Levin, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman. “As it was, we could only handle two people at a time, but now we can handle four at a time.”

CBP announced the renovations last summer and concluded the first phase by the end of 2010.

However, phase two, which involves constructing a taller fence with turnstile entrances, is stuck in limbo as officials from CBP, the General Services Administration and the National Park Service try to negotiate the rules for new construction at a historic site. The U.S. Customs House at the Morley gate, built sometime in the 1920s, is on the National Register of Historical Places.

“There are some very significant restrictions on what we can or can’t do to the building,” Levin said. “We’re currently working toward completing the project but there is no set date for phase two to begin.”

The taller fence and turnstiles were initially cited as integral components of the project because they would reduce the need for CBP to position secondary officers just north of the gate to catch “runners” from bursting through the line and into the United States.

Instead, Port Director Guadalupe Ramirez told the NI in July 2010, CBP could use those officers to man the workstations and keep more lanes open.

Speaking this week, Levin said phase one accomplishes the main goal of speeding up cross-border travel, and noted that shorter wait times at the border means more revenue for the retail businesses that line Morley Avenue.

“We know local merchants and the City of Nogales rely on cross-border travel,” Levin said. “And we know that a good portion of money spent down there comes from cross-border travel.”

Greg Kory, owner of Kory’s Department Store, across the street from the pedestrian gate, said the phase one improvements have been a big help to his and other retail businesses in the area.

“I’m very pleased with the renovations,” Kory said. “Since they’ve added another station, it’s helped our business considerably.

While there are still lines of people waiting to cross at the Morley gate, Kory said, it’s still faster than trying to cross at the nearby DeConcini Port of Entry. Many of the lines he now sees are filled with people trying to clear CBP’s outbound inspections and re-enter Mexico, Kory said, adding that that’s a good thing since these are people returning home after shopping in Nogales.

Bruce Bracker, ownership partner at Bracker’s, another Morley Avenue department store, also said the improvements to the Morley gate have had a positive impact on his business. However, he said, his business — as well as other businesses in the area — are still feeling the impact of longer wait times at the DeConcini port.

“There is a huge issue right now with staffing these stations,” Bracker said. “They’re up against their end of the year fiscal budget and it’s killing retail.”

Bracker says local officials are not to blame for longer cross-border wait times — they are result of poor budgeting and policy in Washington, D.C. Bickering over border politics has been infuriating to the Morley merchants, he said.

“You have people waiting two-and-a-half hours to cross the border and they are deciding to shop somewhere else,” Bracker said. “Our businesses are taking a hit and the people crossing are taking a hit.”