|EDINBURG, May 8 - A top Rio Grande Valley transportation official says a commuter rail line between downtown McAllen and UT-Pan American in Edinburg is economically viable right now.
Andrew Canon, transportation director for Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, made his views known to the Guardian at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the McIntyre Street promenade project in Edinburg.
A bus transit center is being built next to the promenade and UTPA. Running north-south between the location for the transit center and the university is a rail line owned by Valley Switching. Canon believes the line, which goes to McAllen, can be shared and used for commuter rail.
“Studies show a commuter rail project in the Rio Grande Valley is very feasible and I would love to see Edinburg to McAllen being the first spur. With the growth that we have, with the growth at the University, with the growth in McAllen we could anchor down two entertainment districts, here with the McIntyre project, and in McAllen with the 17th Street District,” Canon told the Guardian.
“With all the young people we have over at UTPA it seems like a safe, alternative means to get those young people to McAllen, enjoy a good night of fun and then come back via light rail and never get behind the wheel of a car. From a safety aspect I really support it.”
Canon said he could foresee thousands of passengers wanting to travel from Edinburg to the arts district in McAllen and thousands more wanting to make the reverse trip, to see the growing arts district in Edinburg.
“I think it really makes a lot of sense,” Canon said. “If you have got business at the courthouse in Edinburg and you do not want to get behind the wheel of a car you could take transit from McAllen to here. I really hope this gets serious consideration as the first leg of a commuter rail project.”
Asked how far away the Valley is from having a commuter rail system, Canon said: “We need to update our feasibility study. We need to look at no-build scenarios like we do with highway projects. We need to do some modeling on it to see what it is going to do. I think it will all come out to the positive.”
Canon said he realizes there will be concern among some about tax dollars being needed to supplement a commuter rail system. “It is probably true that we would need some tax dollars. We are looking at a regional transit authority in the future to encompass all of that but, who knows. I cannot speak on that. I just know commuter rail is something we need to get ahead on so that we are not like Houston and Austin, trying to build it in afterwards and it costs ten times as much because we do not have the infrastructure.”
Canon said the Valley does have much of the infrastructure in place already. “We have a shared track, we can partner with Valley Switching. There are some upgrades that need to be performed and it gives us an opportunity to have a fantastic partnership with them for the good of the citizens. Between the two cities (McAllen and Edinburg), we have 200,000 people that we can move around. I think that is a great thing. It is good for all of us. We have a good population corridor.”
Once a McAllen to Edinburg line is established, Canon said he would like to see the line extended east all the way to Brownsville. “When you see all the growth that Pharr is having, and all that is happening with Harlingen and Brownsville it makes sense. I think that is the long-term vision that Representative Martinez has. I just want to make that vision happen.”
Canon was referring to state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, who is vice chair of the House Committee on Transportation. Martinez authored the legislation to set up the Hidalgo County Commuter Rail District. Canon was appointed to the District by Hidalgo County Commissioner Hector ‘Tito’ Palacios.
Canon also spoke about commuter rail for the Valley at a transportation fact-finding meeting held by Congressmen Blake Farenthold, Roger Williams, and Henry Cuellar at the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce on Monday. At the meeting he praised Rep. Martinez for his vision in setting up the commuter rail district.
“We are hoping this project will gain support in the near term. We are looking at limited capacity on Interstate 2 and Interstate 69,” Canon said, acknowledging that he does not know where the money will come from to improve traffic flow at the I-2 and I-69 Central interchange. “We have a bottleneck there with three lanes going down to one,” Canon said. “Commuter Rail will help bring some of those people off the roadways and make for an inviting situation as our area continues to grow.”
Canon told the congressmen that he looks at the Valley today as one large, seamless, metropolitan area. “You drive down 83 now and I really don’t see where you can tell where one municipality ends and another begins. It seems like commuter rail may be one of those tools that we will have in the near term to be able to help us with that.”
In his remarks, Canon pointed out that the population of Hidalgo County is now 800,000. He said the county’s MPO works on a 25-year plan, with $1.4 billion in funding for transportation construction and $65 million for maintenance construction. “We are a huge county and we are growing,” Canon said, adding that he and the MPO are looking forward to Congress passing a new transportation bill.
Because of the Valley’s rapid growth it is “always behind the eight ball” when it comes to meeting demand, Canon said. He pointed to the enormous growth in truck traffic at the Pharr International Bridge. He said more infrastructure is needed at all the land ports. “Traffic is going to grow exponentially because of the Mazatlán highway opening up,” Canon predicted. “We will be getting a lot of produce from Arizona.” Right now, he said, there is “too much stagnation on our bridges.”
Canon also told the three congressmen that the Valley’s bus transit system is “severely under-financed.” He said the 50/50 federal/local matching program in place for operation costs is “not conducive” to building partnerships.
“We have too many small communities here that may not necessarily have the tax revenue to meet that 50/50 partnership you need. But, we still have the population that relies heavily on mass transit. An 80/20 match, like we have for capital improvements in the transit situation would be much more inviting than the 50/50 cooperation,” Canon told the congressmen.
“In the next bill, please try to address that. We have a high number of our population that under the poverty level that do rely on mass transit. It is very unfortunate to have communities who cannot provide the match to provide the bus stop, that bus shelter to meet the needs. Please address that.”
Canon was asked by Congressman Farenthold if bus services were working between Brownsville and McAllen. Canon responded by saying “yes” and highlighted the Metro Connect service that runs between McAllen, Brownsville and South Padre Island. “It is like a high speed bus service on Business 83,” Canon said.
“More of those partnerships are needed. While I think it is great, Brownsville and McAllen have the dollars to be able to supplement their transit systems. My concern is with the small bed and breakfast communities, the mom and pop communities that don’t necessarily have the same tax revenues and the ability of the larger cities do to provide those bus stops.”