MCALLEN, RGV – Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority is going to have to change the funding mechanism for a second causeway to South Padre Island if it wants to access state monies for the project.

Up until now, the plan had been to make the causeway a toll project. However, at a recent forum in McAllen, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., spelled out in no uncertain terms that the state of Texas no longer supports toll roads.

Interviewed after the forum, Bugg told the Rio Grande Guardian:

“The voters of the state of Texas approved Proposition 1 by 80 percent for non-toll roads and they approved Proposition 7 by 83 percent for non-toll roads. Those funds are dedicated and cannot be used by law and by constitution for toll roads.

“By extension, the state of Texas, we are in a non-toll environment. All the projects that we are trying to advance at the Texas Transportation Commission are non-toll projects.”

That said, if local RMAs want to pursue a toll road using monies they have self-generated, go ahead, Bugg opined.

“You have two RMAs in the RGV. They are allowed to proceeds with toll projects. So, for example, you have 365 in the area, that is allowed, under the policy to go forward as a toll project,” Bugg said.

“If an RMA, which is created by a state statute, wanted to do a toll road without raising and using any state of Texas funds, then an RMA can advance a toll project – if the local community comes forward and promotes that.”

Asked what he would recommend to local Rio Grande Valley leaders who want to see a second causeway, Bugg told the Rio Grande Guardian: “I cannot comment on what their priorities should be. We are in a non-tolled environment in the State of Texas. But, the RMA are advancing toll projects. It really is up to the local leadership and the RMAs themselves.”

The transportation forum was hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and held at the DoubleTree Suites in McAllen. Bugg was one of six speakers at the event. Bugg did not refer to the second causeway project in his remarks to the audience. However, two other speakers did.

“We desperately need another causeway, not just for our commerce but for people to evacuate (the island),” said Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization Chairman and Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., agreed. He said:

“The reason the second causeway is so important is this is probably the most regional project we have on our map and to do list with regard to the RGV MPO. FM 1925 from Edinburg all the way to the second causeway will shorten the time for people from Hidalgo County to get to the island. It will address and open up a brand new expanse for economic development and it will give us the second causeway we need.”

Treviño said many people would remember the collapse of the SPI causeway on the Friday after 9/11. Islanders were stranded for many weeks and many local businesses had to close.

“Here we are 18 years later and we are still talking about it. We have worked on it. We need your help, Mr. Chairman. Please help us on that endeavor and we will do whatever we can,” Treviño said.

18 Months Delay

In August, Cameron County RMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda told the Rio Grande Guardian that the second causeway project had been delayed by about 18 months due to the State of Texas’ policy towards toll roads.

“With both projects we are in the environmental phase. But, because we are using state money to develop them, they have been delayed,” Sepulveda told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Pete Sepulveda
Pete Sepulveda

“When the governor and the lieutenant governor changed their position or their policy on toll roads and they put toll roads on hold, we could not longer use state or federal money.”

Cameron County RMA is overseeing the Second Causeway and Outer Parkway projects. Outer Parkway is the project to connect a second causeway to I-69 East. Sepulveda said even if CCRMA used local monies to complete the environmental studies, there would be delays.

“Even if we said, okay, we will use our own local money to develop them, TXDOT has said, well, we can’t review any documents, because they are toll projects.”

Sepulveda explained how dire the situation is.

“We have been at a complete standstill for about 18 months now, or longer, which is unfortunate because both projects are considered really good regional projects that are needed to connect one end of the Valley to another,” Sepulveda said.

“We keep working with our legislators and hopefully, one day, we will hear back and there will be a change in toll policy.”

Judge Treviño’s analysis

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr.
Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr.

After hearing Chairman Bugg’s response to the Rio Grande Guardian’s question about the state’s policy towards toll roads, Judge Treviño said:

“When the second access was conceived, the policy of Texas was pro-toll roads. Obviously, that has change over the last several years. Our goal has been and continues to be to do what we need to do to remove that impediment of it being a toll project.”

Treviño said he was okay with the state of Texas changing its mind on toll roads.

“In view of the fact that now they are only wanting to support non-toll projects, it is absolutely fine. The idea of it being a toll project, that was the MO, the method of operation for the state, something Governor Perry mandated at the time. We are more than pleased to take this off of the toll road mechanism. The question is, how can we take care of that and how can we address it?”

Treviño said Valley leaders “appreciated the comments” of Chairman Bugg. However, he said they would “continue to ask for assistance” to move the second causeway project away from a toll road operation.

“If we make it non-toll we make it eligible not only for TXDOT money but for federal dollars also. We have been in a holding pattern and the impediments, which were initially environmental, dealing with the seagrass, I think we have addressed that. So, we are kind of ready to move this forward.”

Treviño is vice chairman of the RGV MPO. He said the fact that the three Valley MPOs had merged this past year to create the RGV MPO would help the second causeway project.

“I think with the merger of the MPOs, having just one, I am hopeful now that this will garner some additional attention and support, both at the state and at the federal level, but especially at the state level.”

However, Treviño said he appreciates that there are other projects that need immediate attention.

“There are a few what you might call immediate needs that we are facing. For example the East Loop in Brownsville, which has been on board for 30-plus years, and the 365 project in Hidalgo County.

“That does not mean that we cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. I would think those are just a bit more shovel-ready. But, from a regional aspect, the second causeway and FM 1925 is a great example of what we can do by working together.”

Asked what the cost estimates for a second causeway are, Treviño said:

“Initially, we had it at $600 to $800 million. After reviewing some of the environmental issues we are hearing it could be below $400 million. That would make it even more attractive.”

Asked how much FM 1925, from Edinburg to a second causeway would cost, CCRMA’s Sepulveda said: “Approximately $200 million.”

Editor’s Note: The images contained the slideshow accompanying the above news story were taken by Ron Whitlock and Steve Taylor at a transportation forum hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and held at the DoubleTree Suites in McAllen on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

Editor’s Note: Click here to listen to the remarks of the six speakers at the transportation forum. The six speakers were Chairman Bugg, Judge Treviño, Mayor Hernandez, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, and TxDOT Pharr District Engineer Pete Alvarez.