WESLACO, RGV – A second causeway for South Padre Island and a new corridor from Harlingen to SPI are being delayed due to a change in state transportation policy.

The policy change was implemented by Speaker Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick: no new toll road projects. The 2nd Causeway and the Outer Parkway projects are slated to be funded through tolls.

Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Pete Sepulveda said the two projects have been delayed by at least 18 months due to a change in policy at the state level. Sepulveda spoke about the delays at a recent Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.

Pete Sepulveda

“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, at the end of the RGVMPO meeting.

“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 2nd Causeway and Outer Parkway projects. 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.”

Asked how much it would cost to complete the environmental studies, Sepulveda said:

“We are probably about $4 million away from completing the environmental phase on both projects so we are deep into the environmental phase and we do not need a lot of time or money to complete them.”

The Outer Parkway would be a 20-mile corridor linking a second causeway to I-69 E just north of Harlingen. Working with Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority and TxDOT, CCRMA also has plans to link the Outer Parkway corridor to Edinburg via an expanded FM 1925.

“When you look at the significance of the project and you look at this long-term and you look at this corridor all the way from Edinburg to South Padre Island, $4 million is not a lot of money. We need another expressway parallel to Interstate Highway 2. Traffic is pretty heavy any day of the week. So, we need to start the planning process now.”

Sepulveda reiterated that using local monies to complete the environmental studies would be pointless.

“Even if we used local money they (TxDOT) would not review any documents. There is no sense in doing a document and them not reviewing it. By the time they say yes we may have to do the document again.”

Sepulveda explained that the Outer Parkway would connect with a 2nd Causeway in the Bayview area. “We have an alignment that was taken to the public and was recommended as a preferred alternative. The landing on the island would be about a mile north of Beach Access 5.”

Asked how long it might take to build a second causeway, Sepulveda said: “It is hard to predict. From the time we get released to work on it, you are probably looking at five years, minimum. The big question is, will they (TxDOT) release us.”

Sepulveda said the Valley’s legislative delegation has worked hard to get the state leadership to change its position on this particular toll road project.

“We have visited with state legislators, we have visited with representatives from TxDOT, with our delegation, with elected officials. During the legislative session, every week we knocked on someone’s door. I think if the locals are okay with it and if it is an option, we should be allowed to proceed.”

Asked what the alternative is to a toll project, Sepulveda said: “If we cannot toll the project, it would have to be private money.”

He pointed out that, in fact, a new east-west corridor would not stop at I-69C in Edinburg. “Imagine connecting the whole Rio Grande Valley. TxDOT has plans to go further west, all the way to Starr County.”

Sepulveda said he hopes the new RGVMPO can help persuade state leaders to change their stance, at least on these particular projects.

“I think having one MPO, having the fifth largest MPO in the state of Texas, gives us a little more strength to convince state lawmakers. We can say, look, we have got regional priority projects that we have got to get to work on. I am hoping that will help. Being the fifth largest MPO in the state means something. It has got to. I think we now have an excellent opportunity to get our Valley delegation together to say, look, this is a regional project, we need to get to work.”

Sepulveda added: “I think we will get there, eventually.”

Safety, Environmental issues

On the CCRMA website, the importance of the 2nd Causeway is spelled out. It states:

“The SPI 2nd Access Project is said to be one of the most critical safety projects in Texas and the most environmentally complex project in the United States.

“South Padre Island is home to nearly 3,000 residents year-round. During peak seasons, millions of visitors can be seen visiting South Padre Island; in 2016 alone over 8.2 million people visited the island. 

“With an increasing number of vehicles destined to travel to South Padre Island and only one access to the mainland, new infrastructure developments are needed to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety.

“The CCRMA, in partnership with TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, are working on the SPI 2nd Access. The new access will provide an additional emergency evacuation route and improve emergency response times. 

“Along with the further development of a new access, we open the doors to economic development in the northern part of the island. The development of the South Padre Island 2nd Access Project began in 2008 and continues undergoing review for the Environmental Document and preliminary engineering.

“The access is planned to be 8 miles long beginning near Holly Beach and will traverse the Laguna Madre. Currently the design is being developed in a manner to cause the least amount of environmental impacts to the seagrass and other local species habitats we all enjoy when on the water.

“The final Environmental Impact Study for the SPI 2nd Access project is currently under federal review and an environmental approval is expected in the Fall of 2019. Currently, project is on hold by TxDOT.”

The website also states:

“This Project consists of three major components: the mainland roadway, the Laguna Madre crossing bridge and the island roadway. The route under consideration includes a mainland roadway consisting of a four-lane road, crossing across Laguna Madre with about 8 miles of tolled lanes. The total length of the SPI 2nd Access Project is approximately 17.6 miles.”