WESLACO, RGV – The development of a light rail corridor from Rio Grande City to Brownsville could free up funds to provide more bus routes into the rural parts of the Rio Grande Valley, including its colonias.
This is the view of Ron Garza, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. The LRGVDC, the official council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, oversees the Valley Metro bus system.
“Light rail becomes the spine of your public transit system, the main artery and it allows us to divert transit resources that we are using there to create a hub and spoke system. So, it allows us to go even further with our buses into colonias and rural areas, to bring them to the hubs,” Garza said.
“I always think of Southwest Airlines when I think about it. The light rail is your non-stop flights and the buses are the commuter flights. A hub and spoke system. So, it (light rail) actually benefits the rural areas as much as the larger communities.”
Garza speaks today at a LIVE at Bob’s show hosted by the Rio Grande Guardian at Bob’s Steak & Chop House in Edinburg. The Rio Grande Guardian conducted a wide-ranging interview with Garza ahead of the live show.
One of the questions asked was about light rail for the Valley because state Rep. Armando Martinez recently gave a presentation to the LRGVDC board of directors about legislation he planned to file in the upcoming legislative session.
Since the board meeting, Martinez has pre-filed the bill. It is House Bill 71 and it sets up a regional transit authority. The RTA would have the remit to develop a plan for light rail in the Valley.
“The advancement of transportation priorities is definitely a priority. Light Rail is one strategy for it,” Garza said, when asked if Martinez’s legislation would be part of LRGVDC’s legislative agenda.
“What we have essentially been having to do in the Valley is to create an RTA in our own way. We are very proud of Valley Metro and the other metro organizations but the fact is we know we have a gap there that we have to close. We are one of the most robust systems that does not have a stream of dedicated revenue for transportation.
“We cannot be more proud of the fact that all our transportation transit programs in the Valley are funded through partnerships, tapping into federal grants. An RTA would have more sustainable funding so it would allow us to move to the next stage. It is sometimes hard to conceptualize a light rail because it seems so far-stretched.”
In addition to making a presentation to LRGVDC about his RTA legislation, Martinez also spoke to the RGV Small Cities Coalition, which is administered by LRGVDC.
“We had a great conversation about light rail with the Small Cities Coalition,” Garza said. “Most likely the route would go through what we have now (along Business 83). So, a small city, like a La Villa or a Combes, could say, that will not benefit me. But, once they understand how it becomes a network system, then yes they are supportive.”
Garza added: “Like a lot of things with our growth, we are really hitting a new evolution of the Valley. I think there is enough political will and resources that one day, it (light rail) can happen. It is pretty exciting.”
Coalitions for Small and Large Cities to Meet
Another topic covered in the interview involved the level of cooperation between the RGV Large Cities Coalition and the RGV Small Cities Coalition. Garza said the two groups would be meeting privately on Dec. 13 to discuss legislative priorities. Among those invited will be Valley mayors and city managers.
“At their request we are going to do it as a closed door session, so the two groups can have those critical conversations, if they need to. It will be an open discussion with no critical point to discuss,” Garza explained.
“Our strategic plan will be approved at our next board meeting on Dec. 5. We will take those priorities to the two groups, and we will invite members of the local legislative delegation. It will allow us to talk about our regional priorities going into the next legislative session.”
Garza believes the LRGVDC’s strategic plan will help the Valley “springboard” into the Rio Grande Valley Partnership’s Legislative Tour, which takes place at the end of January 2019, and the same group’s RGV Day at the Capitol, which takes place in February 2019.
“We have already vetted the content of the strategic plan. If someone wants to add something, we still have time to do that. When we show up in Austin we intend having a more unified message because it has been a little more thoroughly vetted,” Garza said.
“I have mentioned this to Sergio Contreras, we do the planning around the topics but sometimes you need to make those topics public so you can have them discussed and vetted and ensure you are communicating the correct intentions.”
Sergio Contreras is president of the RGV Partnership, the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce.
“The strategic plan becomes the framework for the legislative agenda. It is at a little higher level. The legislative agenda allows us to incorporate specific dynamics if there are specific projects. It all rolls into something. The RGV 20/20 was our spin on this year’s strategic plan and that will showcase two or three certain projects that LRGVDC wants to make a priority to happen within the next year,” Garza explained.
“From the LRGVDC Strategic Plan we will extract the guidebook that we will be using for the legislative priorities. The strategic plan is the high-level basis, but we are going to put it into more functional use this time.”
Garza said he was delighted that Jorge Ayala, regional director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, is paying another visit to the Valley this week.
“The EDA has been very supportive of the Valley. Once a quarter we hear of a major announcement from EDA that benefits the Valley. When I drive Jorge around, there is not a single community that you cannot say, there is a project there,” Garza said.
“Just a few weeks ago we went to the ribbon-cutting for the new Lexus store in San Juan. The utility infrastructure was an EDA-funded project. The mayor was sharing with me that Lexus built there first but because of that EDA grant, a car dealership and a carwash was added. They came because they were able to tap into that infrastructure. It is a catalyst.”
Garza concluded the interview by announcing the the Weslaco-based Center for International Economic Development Opportunities is to be expanded. The $2 million expansion project came about thanks to funds saved internally by LRGVDC.
“Through efficiencies we have saved money and carried over $2 million to expand the CIEDO building. We have 25 employees that are currently offsite in rented space near the airport that will be able to move into the CIEDO building,” Garza said.
“(Weslaco City Manager) Mike Perez is very supportive of this. They know the advantage of having everybody together. We have moved forward with the architectural firm and will probably extend westward but build a two-story building. It will be approximately 10,500 square feet.”
Garza said there will be four to six months of design work, with construction starting next April or May. The extension could be ready by early 2020, Garza said.
“One thing foundation-wise I am very cognizant of is the purpose of the Center for International Economic Development Opportunities. With our 911 operations we have a GIS team that does interactive mapping. To have that here, our economic development department will have direct access to that team for business recruitment, or RSTEC, will have that resource on hand. We have cleared that with EDA. They are very supportive.”
RSTEC is the Rio South Texas Economic Council. The group offices in the CIEDO building.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows the DART Light Rail System in Dallas, Texas.