MERCEDES, RGV – There were a number of speeches from VIPs about the importance of I-69 to Texas at a celebration luncheon at the Livestock Show Grounds in Mercedes on Monday.

However, it was not until U.S. Henry Cuellar spoke halfway through the proceedings that the connection was made with Mexico, and how having an interstate system would help speed up the delivery of raw materials and products to and from Texas’ biggest trading partner.

Cuellar pointed out that the U.S. does an average of $1.2 billion of trade each day with Mexico.

“Why is I-69 important? Because the busiest trade routes in the nation are down here in this area,” Cuellar told the audience. He then ran through the amount of truck traffic that passes through the main international ports of entry in South Texas.

“Last year in Hidalgo, there were more than 480,000 truck crossings. Brownsville had over 218,000, Progresso had nearly 45,000, Rio Grande had 29,000, Roma had over 7,000, and if you add my home town of Laredo you add an additional 1.8 million trucks crossing,” Cuellar said.

The Rio Grande Valley finally has an interstate! Actually it has three, I-69 East, I-69 Central and I-2. Signs were unveiled by TxDOT in Harlingen and Pharr on Monday.
The Rio Grande Valley finally has an interstate! Actually it has three, I-69 East, I-69 Central and I-2. Signs were unveiled by TxDOT in Harlingen and Pharr on Monday.

“When you add Laredo all the way down to Brownsville you add over 2.5 million trucks that cross South Texas communities that will be served by I-69 and that does not count the non-commercial vehicles. We have got to take care of that business and that is why I-69 is so important,” Cuellar said, pointing out that I-69 West is slated to run from Laredo to Victoria.

Cuellar gave an impassioned speech in favor of international trade. Afterwards, state Sen. Lucio, who was another speaker at the event, said he and Cuellar used to roommate together back when Cuellar was in the Legislature. He said Cuellar has lost none of the boundless energy he had back then.

After the speeches were over, the Guardian asked Cuellar to elaborate on his remarks about trade with Mexico.

“We have got to understand that this trade just doesn’t magically appear in the middle of any bridge. It originates in places like Monterrey, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Mexico City and it crosses our bridge. Whether it is a commercial bridge, a vehicular bridge or a rail bridge, we have to move those goods as fast and efficiently as possible,” Cuellar told the Guardian.

“Last year, we had half a trillion dollars between Texas and Mexico. Keep in mind also, that we do $1.2 billion in trade a day with Mexico and six million jobs are being created here in the U.S. as a result of that trade.”

Cuellar then listed the statistic he said was most important.  “If you look at an import coming from China it has about 0.4 percent of American product in it. But, a good coming in from Mexico has about a 40 percent American product in it. So, the inter-connection we have between both economies is just incredible.”

Cuellar predicted the trade will grow and grow. For this reason, he said, the U.S. needs to be working with Mexico on many issues. “The Mexicans have to see the U.S. not talk about fences but they have to see us talk about building more bridges and more infrastructure and having more CBP officers at our bridges and better infrastructure connecting those bridges and that is why I-69 is so important.”

Cuellar said that when one looks at the numbers for South Texas, almost 50 percent of all the trade between the U.S. and Mexico will pass through between the Laredo to Brownsville. “It is an incredible amount of trade. This is why we have to understand as a country that what is good for the Valley and good for the border is just going to open up economic development and keep Texas the No. 1 job creator in the private sector,” the Laredo Democrat said.

“When you have trade that is bottlenecked at our bridges because we do not have the infrastructure or enough CBP officers and then, once that trade gets off our bridges and it goes through roads that are very constrained, that means everything takes longer, that means there is more danger to people that live in that area. If we are able to open that up, businesses are going to say the Valley is a good place to do business. Time is money.”

As Cuellar made his remarks, the Guardian was reminded about a comment U.S. Sen. John Cornyn often makes: that he has to spend an extraordinary amount of time educating his colleagues from the northern and eastern states about the importance of trade and providing the infrastructure to facilitate it. Cuellar was asked how he goes about doing that.

“We do it one person at a time. I think some people are starting to understand this. We just added money in the appropriations bill to add 1,600 new CBP officers. And, we are looking at public-private partnerships to speed up infrastructure projects. But, some people in Washington who do not know the border try to convince you they do. I am not exaggerating, but one member of Congress told me that he came down to Laredo one Sunday and stood for two hours watching the trucks coming over the bridge. He said that because of this he knew the border,” Cuellar said.

“Others think they know about it because they read a magazine. That does not do justice to the people that live here. We drink the water, we breathe the air, we live here, whether it is members of Congress or other leaders in the community, we understand the dynamics, we understand the culture. Washington should give us the respect and allow us to have some input and say on what we need for border security and having the right balance, so we do not impede legitimate trade and commerce for the sake of security.”

The luncheon at the Livestock Show Grounds in Mercedes was held to celebrate the official unveiling of I-69 and I-2 shields by TxDOT in the Valley. After decades of pushing for it, Valley leaders were finally able to punch the air with delight – the region finally had an interstate. U.S. 77 from Brownsville to Raymondville is now of interstate standard and has been designated I-69 East. U.S. 281 from Pharr to Edinburg is now of interstate standard and has been designated I-69 Central. And, U.S. 83 from Mission to Harlingen is now of interstate standard and has been designated I-2. That’s 113 miles of new interstate.

At the luncheon, Phil Wilson, executive director of TxDOT, praised the Alliance for I-69 Texas for working diligently for decades to make I-69 in Texas a reality. He said the first “someday” I-69 shields were first erected in Texarkana in 1993. “For 20 years, the coalition met and talked about where and how, they all agreed on the necessity. It showed why patience is a virtue. For 20 years they did not give up. They saw the vision and they saw the opportunity for partnership,” Wilson said.

Wilson said MAP 21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), a transportation policy adopted by Congress, was a game changer. “That was an extraordinary development. It said we could do roads incrementally, that is a sea change. It changed the whole conversation,” Wilson explained. He said that during the last 18 months, the state and federal government has pumped $700 million into 36 I-69 projects.

Wilson also said two things are driving the U.S. economy today like nothing else today: trade and energy. He said Mexico was one of the catalysts for the increased trade and Eagle Ford Shale was one of the catalysts for increased energy supply.

Cuellar told the Guardian afterwards that Wilson was spot on. “Without a doubt, he is correct. I have seen small communities in my district just transformed by Eagle Ford Shale. The traffic that has grown there is just incredible. You add the trade and the energy sector – that is the catalyst for saying we need to invest more money here, not 20 years from now but as soon as possible,” Cuellar said.

When I-69 is fully complete, it will run from the Mexican border in Laredo, Pharr and Brownsville, all way north to Port Huron, Michigan, on the border with Canada. The original continuous segment runs from Indianapolis, Indiana, northeast to Port Huron. Alex Meade, president and CEO of the Mission Economic Development Corporation, said he was recently in the Detroit area on business and saw I-69 in Michigan.

“It was great to I-69 there. It put everything into perspective as to why we are doing this. We need to be connected to the rest of the county. One day, Brownsville and Mission are going to be connected to Detroit, Michigan and on into Canada. People need to remember Mexico is the No. 1 manufacturing source for the automotive industry in the U.S. I-69 is going to make us more competitive. That will mean more jobs,” Meade said.

Alan Johnson, chairman of the Port of Harlingen Authority, has been part of the push to create I-69 in Texas from the very beginning. He told the Guardian that Monday’s official unveiling of I-69 shields was an historic day. “We started this project in 1994 and we said it would take 20 years and we have done it in 19. It has been a long hard road and a lot of people worked very, very hard on it. We are very glad it is done. We had a lot of people tell us we could not do it, including congressmen, because we could not get enough federal dollars. We just persevered. The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Johnson said.

Along with the Alliance for I-69 Texas, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership has been working to secure an interstate for the region for the longest time. For many years the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce was led by Bill Summers. Summers died in 2009 but his wife Jo and son Randy were present for the official unveiling of the I-69 and I-2 shields.

“Bill worked on this for so many years, from the very beginning. So, it is wonderful to see it happen. I just wish he was here to see it,” Jo Summers told the Guardian. “But, he is looking down on us now. He is saying, Hallelujah. He is probably saying, ‘boy it sure took you boys a long time after I left’.”