HARLINGEN, RGV – Cameron County officials are preparing for a potential visit by Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto in April, when the first new international rail bridge between the U.S. and Mexico for 105 years is officially opened.

Pete Sepulveda, executive director of Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, has worked on the West Rail Bypass International Rail bridge project from the beginning. He said he is excited about the prospect of the two presidents speaking at the ribbon-cutting.

“There is a lot of talk about bringing the two presidents to Cameron County. There is a lot of excitement. I think that is very realistic, very doable,” Sepulveda told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We are looking at mid-April for the official opening. I think it is a great opportunity to bring the two presidents here. Think of the history. It was on Dec. 12, 1910, when they opened the B&M rail bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros. This is the first one since. There is so much happening in our region. It would great to have the presidents come down.”

Cameron County RMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda spoke about transportation projects at a NAAMREI regional summit at TSTC Harlingen.
Cameron County RMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda spoke about transportation projects at a NAAMREI regional summit at TSTC Harlingen.

Obama has not visited the Rio Grande Valley since becoming president. He came twice while campaigning for president in 2008, once to Brownsville and once to Edinburg. Peña Nieto has visited Reynosa during his presidency. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón visited the new rail bridge in Matamoros in November, 2012, while it was under construction.

Sepulveda discussed the new international bridge during a panel discussion on transportation at last Thursday’s North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative regional summit at TSTC Harlingen.

Afterwards he gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian. He said that on the U.S. side, Union Pacific will operate rail movements and on the Mexican side it will be Kansas City Southern Mexico.

“This is only the second bridge that I have handled from day one to the end – the other one being the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. So, I can probably write a book after this. It is all good. It is good for the community,” Sepulveda said.

Asked how important the new rail bridge will be, Sepulveda said it would be “huge,” both in terms of public safety and international trade.

“It is a huge project and, after 15 years of hard work, it is finally ready. Just think, in the next six weeks we will finally have it completed. We are having almost twice a week conference calls with the contractor and all his subs, with CBP, with the County, with the RMA just to ensure we dot all our I’s and cross all our T’s.

“I can honestly tell you we are at the tail end of the project. It should be ready by mid- March. It really should be 99.9 percent complete. Then we need a couple of weeks for the rail operators to test it one last time.

“The rail operators are on the calls with us. You can tell now that everything is coming together. Everything is ready on the Mexican side. We have our next technical meeting with Mexico on Feb. 13. Everybody will be on that call.”

Asked why the new rail bridge is important for public safety, Sepulveda said: “Just being able to open that up, place it in operation and eliminate the rail that goes through downtown areas, our parks and schools; that is huge. It is a quality of life project, making things a lot cleaner. I think it is going to be awesome for Brownsville.”

To understand how big a deal it is, Sepulveda suggested the success of the project should be contrasted with the wish list of other communities.

“I hear from the rail operators across the nation that there are a lot of communities that want to relocate rail out of urban areas to rural areas but they never get anywhere. In 15 years we have been through multiple mayors, county judges, governors, and not just on the U.S. side but on the Mexican side as well. I take my hat off to the political leadership at the county and the city that have stayed with the project and have continued to be focused and hopefully, six weeks from now we can have it complete.”

Asked if the new rail bridge will be important for the oil and gas shale extraction and distribution in the Burgos Basin in Mexico, Sepulveda said: “Yes, because of the direct connectivity to the Port of Brownsville. If the oil and gas boom happens, West Rail is going to be ideal because I think CBP and the rail operators will have a much broader window during the day to be able to take trains either southbound or northbound. I think it is perfect timing from that standpoint and hopefully if it does happen, the Port will be ready and we can get the additional rail traffic that we know the new bridge will be able to handle.”

Sepulveda added that international trade with Mexico generally will benefit. “This will really give everyone another option. Right now Brownsville is not utilized as an option. Southbound, yes, they take loaded cars but northbound it is strictly empty rail cars that are coming from other areas, from the interior of Mexico. I believe this will give rail operators a real option on switching traffic from other areas of the state to this area because we will have that broad window of operation during the day. They will be able to take trains southbound or northbound. It will give them another option. And, it is really good for the public, in terms of the quality of life, and the Port of Brownsville.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on the work of regional mobility authorities in the Rio Grande Valley. Part two will be published in the next few days.