WESALCO, RGV – A planned highway designed to move overweight trucks between the Pharr and Anzalduas ports of entry should be changed from a toll project to a free one, say City of McAllen leaders.
City Manager Roy Rodriguez says McAllen has written to Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority to request a change in the way the 365 Tollway project is financed.
“We sent a letter to Hidalgo County RMA asking that they reconsider the toll that comes off of Anzalduas Parkway,” Rodriguez said, at a recent Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization board meeting.
“It does not seem like there are going to be any more toll roads in Hidalgo County and it is not logical for us to accept the fact that the one that comes out of Anzalduas, that it is tolled. I want you to know, we are pursuing that and we are asking that that be reconsidered.”
The 365 Tollway project spans 12.2 miles and will connect the Anzalduas and Pharr bridges. It is shovel ready and likely to cost $255 million to construct. Approximately $100 million of it will be paid for through the issuance of bonds, which will be paid off over 30 years through the collection of toll fees. Currently there is a gap of $26 million in funding, which HCRMA is seeking to address.
“The gap was $73 million but we have found some local monies. Now the gap is $26 million. We are really close to being ready to start the project,” Pilar Rodriguez, executive director of HCRMA, told the Rio Grande Guardian at the end of the RGVMPO meeting.
Currently, the Texas Transportation Commission is opposed to toll roads. However, at a recent meeting the agency allowed 365 to move forward as a toll project. At the same meeting, TTC also allowed the State Highway 550 project in Cameron County to proceed as a toll project. Both 365 and 550 are top priorities for RGVMPO.
Speaking at the RGVMPO board meeting, Eric Davila, chief development engineer for HCRMA, defended the decision to make the 365 Tollway a tolled project. Davila said if it had not been designed as a toll road the project would not have got started.
“How do we fund maintenance and how do we get it off the ground and build it? While any project could be made non-tolled it all depends on how much more investment from TxDOT or the Feds will come into play to fill in that void,” Davila said.
Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez chairs the RGVMPO. Hernandez said that while he has sympathy with McAllen’s view that 365 not be a toll project, it was likely the only way forward.
“We all share the pain. I do not want it to be tolled. I am with him (Roy Rodriguez)), but I understand why you are doing it,” Hernandez said to Davila. “It is probably your financing, that is how you are getting it done.”
“Yes, this project was essentially grandfathered in that fashion. It is being financed in that fashion and the funding agreements play off that toll. The investment is much lower to the state and the Feds because of it,” Davila said.
Roy Rodriguez responded: “We understand that. However, when Hidalgo County RMA was first created, all the roads were going to be tolled. That is not factual anymore and so we feel that that is just an anomaly to have that section be tolled.”
Davila said he did not think it was an anomaly.
“In response to an anomaly, not necessarily. We have got segments like IBTC that are at the core of the overweight system and the 365 figures prominently in that overweight network in the future.”
IBTC stands for International Bridge Trade Corridor.
However, Davila did concede that Roy Rodriguez was right when he said there are not going to be any other toll projects in Hidalgo County.
“The fact remains this is the only tolled road in Hidalgo County RMA. Whether it is overweight or not it is still the only toll road,” Roy Rodriguez said.
Davila was asked to explain the financial implications of making 365 a toll project.
“The toll revenue bonds on 365 is to the tune of $100 million. That will give us leverage to deliver the project, to pay for the construction testing and inspection, to get the project ready to the door,” he said.
Asked if it was correct that without the $100 million in bonds the 365 project would not be feasible, Davila said: “That is correct.”
Mayor Hernandez concurred.
“They (HCRMA) do not have enough money to finance it. At the end of the day, when we merged we said, all of us, we are going to support this project. This is what the Hidalgo County MPO wanted. We need the 365, east and west because it is the initial bridge to the IBTC which goes north and south,” Hernandez said.
“In Hidalgo County, we do not want our trucks anywhere near downtown Mission, Pharr, San Juan, Alamo or Donna. This is the solution to get it done. The financing occurred before I was here. Roy, I understand your concern. I wish we could find a different way but this is the model we were given to work with. TXDOT nor the Governor’s Office is looking to undo it so, I am not going to blame the messenger. It is what it is and we have agreed to it. We just need to get it done on time because those trucks keep churning up our roads.”
Davila added: “It is the fastest way to get the project delivered. We understand the concern. The (City of McAllen) letter will be addressed.”
History of 365 and IBTC
In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the conclusion of the RGVMPO meeting, HCRMA’s Rodriguez explained the history behind the 65 Tollway and the IBTC.
“The whole Hidalgo County Loop System, which is approximately 120 miles, is, in our plans, shown to be a toll road. However, TXDOT no longer supports toll roads. So, that has become a challenge for us. But, that is how it is programmed. We are working on some non-tolled sections, including the IBTC, because we are in a non-toll environment right now.”
IBTC will connect the Donna Bridge to 365 before heading north to I-2. It is slated to be built after the 365 Tollway with a completion date of 2026 or 2027.
“We should get IBTC environmentally cleared by mid 2020,” said Pilar Rodriguez. “We have $12 million to buy right of way but we do not have construction dollars. We need to find $100 million to get it built. They key thing is the construction dollars.”
Pilar Rodriguez said in order to keep IBTC moving forward the only option is to deliver it as a free road.
“We don’t want to get stagnant. We want it to get environmentally cleared so we can move forward. But, what happened with the 365 when we got started, we were in a toll environment, where tolls were a very popular tool,” Pilar Rodriguez said.
“We were beyond the point of no return, we had already obtained our environmental clearance, we had already issued debt to get it (365) shovel ready, when the pendulum swung the other way, and so now we are in a non-tolled environment. That is why TXDOT grandfathered this project. There are only a handful of toll projects around the state that have been grandfathered in.”
Pilar Rodriguez said HCRMA has approximately $100 million of debt on the 365 project right now. “In order for it to be a free road somebody is going to have to pay for that $100 million that we spent on right of way, utility relocates, on designing the project, etc. Tolls will service that debt over 30 years. If somebody would like to give us $100 million we would be more than happy to pay off the debt and make it a free road.”
Interviewed after the RGVMPO meeting, Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña said: “I am in agreement with McAllen’s idea of making 365 a free road. If it is going to be the only toll road in Hidalgo County, it should not happen. The only thing is, how are we going to fund it. If McAllen does not like the idea of toll roads, perhaps they need to get together and reroute some more money. One hundred million dollars is hard to recuperate.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story was taken at the December 2019 board meeting of the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization. It shows Vice Chairman Eddie Treviño, Jr., Chairman Ambrosio Hernandez, and Executive Director Andrew Canon.