EDINBURG, RGV – A transportation leader in the Rio Grande Valley says there is no comparison as to the return on investment from building a light rail system and expanding the I-2/I-69C interchange in Pharr.
A rail system wins hands down, argues Andrew Canon, executive director of Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“We really appreciate everything Senator Hinojosa and Mayor Hernandez did in securing that $320 million for the (Pharr) Interchange. That is just an example to use because the (improvement to the) Interchange is going to spread out the traffic we already have. It is going to ease that congestion. It is going build momentum so traffic can move more freely and more comfortably through the area. But there is not really much return on investment for the money that is being spent other than move traffic better, and, of course, are quality is an issue,” Canon said.
“But, as far as dollars go, $300 million on a rail line that would be regionally impactful from Hidalgo County to Cameron County, that is going to thrust economic opportunities, that is going to have commercial growth, that is going to have development growth, residential growth, all of these things. That is the direct return on that investment at $300 million. So, while there may be that exorbitant, as some people might consider it, cost upfront, over a couple of years, what is going to be created in tax revenue coming back to the cities and to the county and the community, its is going to be phenomenal. That is definitely a project that is going to have a great return on the investment for the money that is going to be spent.”
Canon made his remarks in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the close of a LIVE at Bob’s event, held at Bob’s Steak & Chop House in Edinburg. State Rep. Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez, D-Weslaco, was the guest speaker and he made the case for light rail in the Rio Grande Valley. The title of the show was “Commuter Rail for the RGV – Closer Than You Think.” Martinez is vice chair of the House Committee on Transportation and author of much of the legislation to bring light rail to the Valley.
Among the VIPs at the luncheon were state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rio Grande Valley Partnership President Sergio Contreras, Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council Executive Director Ron Garza, and Rio South Texas Economic Council Executive Director Matt Ruszczak.
Ten to 15 Years
In his remarks, Martinez boldly predicted light rail would be in place alongside Expressway 83 within the next ten to 15 years.
In his interview, Canon said HCMPO stands ready to assist with Rep. Martinez’s vision. He said there was a “transportation alternative” budget that could be used to study a light rail project.
“As the representative needs us, we are there. If there is a study that we can do… we look at things from a regional perspective, we want to do that, we want him to be successful. It is overwhelmingly good for the entire community, in the upper Valley and lower Valley.”
Asked if Martinez’s prediction of light rail coming to the Valley within a decade or so was realistic, Canon said: “I have learned to never underestimate the Representative and his drive. When he is gung-ho about something… I think it helps all of us that he is vice chairman of the transportation. If the Representative feels that we are looking at a ten or 15 year horizon on this, I have no reason to doubt that at all. I look forward to it.”
Canon added: “It is a great vision. I hope I am alive to see it and ride on it once it is completed.”
In the live show conversation it was put to Rep. Martinez that a price tag of $300-plus million, just for Hidalgo County, was off-putting for many. That figure came from an independent study commissioned in 2011. A light rail advisory committee set up at the time by Hidalgo County Commissioners Court fizzled out, with some commissioners putting members on the board that were hostile to light rail from the get-go.
Martinez said times have changed. He noted that with some heavy employment projects in the works in the lower Valley, there would be a need for better mass transit to move workers from the upper Valley. He also noted that the Valley’s population has grown, thus potentially increasing the number of riders, and that Valley Metro’s bus system has improved considerably over the past decade.
“The feasibility study showed 16,000 riders a day. If they pay $5 a rider, that is $27 million a year. When you add Cameron County and Starr County, those numbers continue to go up. It is feasible but what we need to do is make sure we have a study that includes the Valley in its entirety,” Martinez told the Rio Grande Guardian, in an interview after the live show.
Martinez said there are grounds for optimism.
“I think it (light rail in the Valley) is going to happen. It is no longer a dream, it is a reality and it is going to come to fruition. If you look at the amount of money it would take to invest, when one interchange is $300 million, you know that it is just few years away from happening. All we need to do is continue to move forward and make sure we have the framework, continue to get support and raise awareness throughout the community.”
Martinez said he welcomed the analysis of HCMPO’s Canon with regard to a return on investment.
“Andrew is right. You will have retail, shops, restaurants, hotels, apartment buildings. You will generate more sales and property taxes. It will also make it easier for our economic development leaders to attract bigger corporations to the Valley. Amazon, for example, is one of the companies that has said, we want to make sure mass transit is available for people in order to get to work, and that is where they are going to base their headquarters. Large companies that want to come down are going to look at what type of transportation we have.”
Martinez’s trip legislative agenda item for the next session is to pass a bill setting up a transit authority under the auspices of LRGVDC.
“You have representatives from cities across the Valley that sit on the COG. That is what we want, the participation of everybody throughout the Valley to make the decisions, to build the framework, so that we can continue to create regionalism. When we talk about regionalism it is not only UTRGV. It also applies to transportation, and our efforts to merge our three metropolitan planning organizations. There is talk of merging our regional mobility authorities. To have an all-encompassing regional transit authority, for rail and buses, under one umbrella, it really shows our vision of regionalism. It is not about one community or another, it is about us as a Valley. The more people we have together, we can get a lot more done.”
In the Q&A, local architect Sam Garcia said one way to build awareness of the benefits of light rail is to have a storefront where residents can see what the project would look like, where they could interact with planners. A legislative staff member suggested a video be created.
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian videoed the live show from Bob’s Steak & Chop House for posterity. Thus, if light rail becomes a reality in the Valley (or when, as Rep. Martinez says), historians will be able to look back and say, here was a conversation among visionaries.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows the DART light rail system in Dallas, Texas.