EDINBURG, RGV – The Texas Department of Transportation is committed to helping the Rio Grande Valley with its mobility needs, says the new chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., brought TXDOT’s senior management team to the Valley on Tuesday for a series of meetings with area leaders. He also spoke at the 1st Annual State of Regional Mobility and Infrastructure Luncheon – RGV, hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance.

“It is great to be in the Rio Grande Valley today. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. It is an honor to be here today,” Bugg said as he opened his remarks. He listed the leadership he had brought with him to the Valley: James Bass, TxDOT’s executive director. Marc Williams, TXDOT’s deputy director, Jerry Haddican, who heads governmental affairs for TXDOT, and Chuy Gonzalez, TXDOT’s chief of staff. TXDOT’s Pharr District Engineer Pete Alvarez was also present and gave an in-depth presentation on the projects the agency is working on in the Valley.

Bugg said he was appointed chair of the TTC by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 19. He said that every chance he gets he thanks the 12,500 men and women that work for TxDOT. “I marvel at the true depth of dedication, I am so proud of them,” Bugg said.

Bugg is a native of San Antonio and so is used to coming down to the Valley. He said he wanted to focus on three things in his speech, the TXDOT family, his statewide strategic vision, and some observations on the Valley. He said the Valley was “phenomenal.”

With regard to Hurricane Harvey and the challenge it presents to TXDOT, Bugg said he was told by Bass and Gonzalez that none of the agency’s $15 billion a year budget could be spent on helping the victims of Harvey. So, he helped form a non-profit to help TXDOT employees negatively impacted and displaced by the hurricane. So far, he said. $6,800 had been raised for each person impacted. He said TXDOT is like a family.

Bugg recently spoke to 3,000 TXDOT employees at Texas A&M. This year is the 100th Anniversary of the agency. He said he shared with employees his belief that one thing binds them: a sense of public service. “To me there is no higher calling, serving our community over our own self-interest.”

With regard to his strategic vision, Bugg pointed out that he joined the TTC board in February 2015. He said the very same time he joined the state demographer made a bold prediction: that the state’s population is set to grow to 54 million by 2050. In 2015 the population was 27 million.

“That is a huge explosion over the next 35 years of population. That has major public policy implications for transportation,” Bugg said. “I have spent a lot of time, at the governor’s request, building a statewide strategic plan; how can we relieve congestion where we find it.”

Bugg said he and the TTC board would not have the “firepower” to develop a statewide strategic plan without the help of the Legislature. Three state legislators spoke at the luncheon, state Sens. Juan Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio, Jr., and state Rep. Armando Martinez. Bugg recognized each of them. He said that in 2015, the 84th Legislature set in place new funding streams for TxDOT. He said that in 2014, 80 percent of Texans supported for Prop. 1, and 2015, 83 percent of Texans supported Prop 7. He called this a Texas-size mandate to get behind transportation. He said the Legislature also ended a diversion whereby $650 million in state highway taxes were used to plug other budgetary needs. “We have adopted a $70 billion unified transportation plan. We have strategic priorities,” Bugg said.

One of the strategic priorities, Bugg said, that had been requested by Gov. Abbott, is to help rural connectivity and ease rural congestion. He said TXDOT has allocated $6.4 billion for this purpose.

Rio Grande Valley

Bugg cited population statistics from the state demographer about population projections for the Rio Grande Valley. He said the Valley currently has a population of 1.3 million but by 2050 it will rise to 2.4 million.

“We are here to help support this area. It is important to Gov. Abbott. It is important to TXDOT,” Bugg said, referencing his meetings with local leaders. “I think listening is a lost art. We are trying to do a better job of listening to you,” he said, stating this is why he brought his entire senior team. “We are listening, we are very conscious of your future growth, we want to work with you on how to alleviate not only the congestion of today but also to plan for the future.”

Bugg cited the inauguration in August 2015 of the West Rail project, the first international bridge to Mexico to be built in over 100 years. He said he wants to help with another freight rail project. He did not go into details but in an interview with Alvarez, the Pharr District Engineer, afterwards the Rio Grande Guardian learned Bugg was speaking about the rail project being worked on at Madero by the City of Mission and McAllen Economic Development Corporation. In an interview with Sen. Hinojosa afterwards, the Rio Grande Guardian learned that TXDOT could fund an environmental study for the Madero rail project.

“We understand just how important it is to facilitate the freight traffic, the trade with Mexico. My personal opinion is trade with Mexico is just going to get stronger, no matter what the political discourse is in Washington. I think it is inevitable because we are a natural partner for Mexico,” Bugg said, to the delight of many in the audience.

“I believe the trade traffic is going to continue. It is why rail, I think, is important to consider and for ordinary moms and dads that want to take their kids back and forth across the border to go to and from Mexico. It is imperative we work with you and help you to achieve your own transportation goals.”

Bugg concluded his remarks by saying how impressed he is with what is going on in the Rio Grande Valley. He said his visit provided an opportunity to listen to Valley leaders and understand how TXDOT can help the area in the future.

Title sponsors of the luncheon were El Tigre Food Stores, S&B Infrastructure, Ltd., Raba Kistner, Pathfinder Public Affairs, Lone Star National Bank, L& G Engineering, and Foremost Paving, Inc.

Platinum sponsors of the luncheon were the City of Edinburg.

Gold sponsors of the luncheon were Rio Grande Steel, Ltd., Joseph Palacios, Halff & Associates, Terracon, CAPA, and IOC Company, LLC.

Public/Government/Education sponsors were Port of Brownsville, Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority, City of McAllen, Associated General Contractors of America, Pharr International Bridge, Pharr Economic Development Corporation and McAllen Economic Development Corporation.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first of two on the 1st Annual State of Regional Mobility and Infrastructure Luncheon – RGV. The second story will be published later this week.