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Officials from Donna and Río Bravo met for a business development forum at Victoria Palms in Donna, Texas, on Dec. 2, 2015.

DONNA, RGV – The City of Donna is in a race against time get a diplomatic note from the state department in Mexico in support of its efforts to build additional customs infrastructure at its international bridge.

December 18 is the deadline to make an application to U.S. Customs & Border Protection under Section 559 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014. This section allows CBP to accept donations from local governments and the private sector for infrastructure projects at ports of entry.

Over time, the City of Donna wants to donate $45 million under the public-private partnership arrangement so it can facilitate fully loaded trucks on the Alliance International Bridge. So far it has raised enough money to build the facilities to handle southbound empty trucks and wants to donate these funds to CBP. But, it needs a diplomatic note signed by the State Departments of the United States and Mexico. It is now working with Tamaulipas Governor Egidio Torre Cantú and Río Bravo Mayor Rogelio Villaseñor Sánchez to get the diplomatic note.

Donna Mayor Irene Muñoz
Donna Mayor Irene Muñoz

“Our bridge is incredibly beneficial for both sides of the border so we are looking for help from Mexico,” said Donna Mayor Irene Muñoz. “It behooves Mexico and us to get this diplomatic note going. It would be a tremendous blessing for both sides. We have the money for the first phase, which is for southbound empty trucks. We still have to come up with the money for empty trucks going northbound, and, at the end of the day, fully loaded trucks.”

Muñoz made her comments in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the end of a business development forum hosted by the Donna-Río Bravo International Alliance. The event was held at Victoria Palms. Numerous dignitaries were present including Mayor Villaseñor and state Rep. Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez of Weslaco.

The Alliance International Bridge in Donna opened in 2010. Currently, only passenger vehicles can cross the bridge. In a presentation at the business development forum, City of Donna consultant Ernesto Silva said the original plan was for the bridge to take truck traffic also. However, Silva said, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with federal budget cuts meant the funding was never found to facilitate the handling of truck traffic.

“When we started this project back in 2003, it was proposed and approved to have a fully-fledged port, a fully operational port, with empty trucks, loaded trucks and passenger vehicles. But due to a budget shortfall they only constructed facilities for passenger vehicles. They (the federal government) expressed to the City of Donna that they would build the rest of the facilities shortly. But then we had the Sept. 11 and the economic downturn,” Silva explained.

“So, they (the federal government) created the 559 Program to allow for local sponsors to donate these facilities to the federal government, which was not allowed before.”

Silva said there is still a lot of work to be done to get the 559 Program application in on time.

“We have to submit the next 559 Program application by Dec. 18. It really is December 16 because, with all the cyber-attacks, it takes more time to get through the computer system at the federal level in Washington. So, we are working diligently to get all those different priorities accomplished in a timely manner. We are working with the Governor of Tamaulipas, the Mayor of Río Bravo and the federal government. We have always had a very good working relationship with them. There is no doubt in my mind that we will have all of this taken care of by next week.”

Donna residents pay the highest taxes in the Rio Grande Valley, in part because of the cost of developing their international bridge. Mayor Muñoz says investing even more funding at the port will pay dividends.

“We know this has been a great sacrifice by the people of Donna. Taking on this bridge meant we had to raise taxes. We have the highest taxes but we believe the vision will pay off. We have lowered the taxes some, we are at what, 98 cents? Some people do not realize the potential we have and the future investment that will be coming along our international trade corridor once we can start taking truck traffic. It is incredible, the transformation that will take place. We need to stay passionate about this and keep the flame going, continue to keep meeting, to discuss new ideas and build relationships, on both sides of the river,” Muñoz said.

In an interview after the business development forum, consultant Silva said the City of Donna’s investment of $45 million so that the bridge can handle truck traffic is a great investment because developer Mike Rhodes of Alliance River Crossing is ready to invest $900 million in a project that will secure numerous industrial parks and commercial, retail and residential development on the north side of the bridge. Rhodes spoke briefly at the business development forum.

“Without the public-private partnership the federal government does not have the resources to build the facilities and the 559 program allows for the City of Donna to build the facilities and donate them to the federal government. If there is no funding from the federal government the City cannot move forward with its project. The City is ready to make that investment because if you have commercial trucks crossing at the Donna Bridge you can spur economic development, which brings jobs,” Silva told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“The bridge will generate some tolls but the tolls are very minimal when you take a look at the overall picture. There is so much land that can be developed around the bridge. Mike Rhodes and the Alliance River Crossing group has the potential to be a $900 million investment and create about 7,000 jobs. It is a huge investment by Mr. Rhodes. It is a huge win for the City. When you consider that a $45 million investment can leverage a $900 million invested in the community, $45 million seems a small amount to pay.”

In his remarks at the forum, Silva spoke about plans to develop an international trade corridor stretching all the way from the Donna Bridge to Interstate 69 Central north of the airport in Edinburg. The north-south corridor will utilize the planned Highway 68.

“On the Mexican side they constructed this bypass around the urbanized area that takes you to Río Bravo and connects you to a tollway that is already built that takes you from Rio Bravo to Matamoros. On the U.S. side we have the International Border Trade Corridor. We were promoting this roadway as a means to let trucks go all the way north to the Edinburg airport, because the Edinburg airport is a Foreign Trade Zone. Then, you can have just in time delivery for all the parts that are needed for the maquilas,” Silva said.

“The trucks could go all the way from Donna to New York City without ever having to stop, except for fuel and bathroom break. This is what is going to separate this project from the other bridges. None of the other bridges can offer that. Most of the other bridges are landlocked. They do not have any way to grow their port. We have 250 acres-plus. Most ports only have about 50 acres. They do not have the ability to have a direct connector into the expressway system. This is what is going to give the advantage to this port over all the other ports.”

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Silva discussed one other proposal for the Alliance International Bridge. Using high speed Internet connections installed by Alliance River Crossing, the U.S. and Mexico could share a $5 million X-Ray machine to scan trucks crossing the bridge.

“If we set up such a program, with one x-ray machine the two governments could share images. You would speed up inspections because the trucks would only have to go through one x-ray machine instead of two. You would have U.S. and Mexico inspectors looking at the same images,” Silva said.

Asked if the U.S. and Mexico are doing something similar with the West Rail Project in Brownsville, Silva said: “In Brownsville they have a pilot program in place where Mexico is sharing its images with the U.S. Our proposal, the first phase, would be to share the images for the southbound empty trucks. It would be a first. This is the way of the future,” Silva said.

Donna Mayor Pro Tem Sonia Gallegos
Donna Mayor Pro Tem Sonia Gallegos

Reflecting on the large turnout for the business development forum and the array of subjects covered, Mayor Muñoz said: “I am so proud of our staff and the presenters they brought in. It was an eye-opener for those who do not know all the things that we are doing.”

Muñoz said Donna and Río Bravo need to work more closely together in the future and suggested a collaboration on marketing efforts. “When we go to the big trade conferences in Las Vegas, let’s do a joint booklet with what Río Bravo has to offer, not just Donna. There are 130,000 people in Rio Bravo. Let’s produce a joint magazine.”

Muñoz said she wants to hold a similar business development in the near future but next time with involvement by neighboring Valley cities such as Alamo and Weslaco. “People need to understand this is a regional project,” Muñoz added.

Donna Mayor Pro Tem Sonia Gallegos was also present at the business development forum.

“This is a regional project, not just on the U.S. side but with our neighbors in Mexico. There are some things we need from them on order to continue on with this project, and so we need their help. We need the diplomatic note and continued communication on where the project is going and what the next step is,” Gallegos told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the end of the forum.

“This meeting was very important because we needed to exchange information. There is a gap in communication, mainly because, on the Mexican side, this is Tamaulipas’ bridge. We know what the end point is but how do we get there? There are so many steps we have to go through, through the state and federal level. I think this is the first of many meetings.”

Gallegos added that while the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge specializes in fresh produce, the Donna Bridge may well focus on energy, as the Burgos Basin gets developed in Mexico.

“We are leaning towards energy. Our bridge is a jewel. I don’t think any of us can conceive the potential of this bridge. It is huge. Because we have all that property, we have the leeway to expand. I hope all the people here understand how exciting it is to be part of this project. This impacts the future of transportation in the Valley.”