PHARR, RGV – When state Sen. Juan Hinojosa speaks publicly at a groundbreaking or ribbon-cutting ceremony he invariably makes news.
Such was the case last Thursday when the veteran lawmaker from McAllen spoke at a celebration of the widening of Owassa Road from two to four lanes between Jackson Road and I-69 Central in Pharr.
In both his remarks from the podium and in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Hinojosa revealed the latest developments on merging the Rio Grande Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), expanding Monte Cristo Road so that it connects Hidalgo County to a second causeway at South Padre Island, and boosting infrastructure funding for land ports of entry in Hidalgo and Cameron County.
“We are working with TXDOT to come up with an additional $40 million to allocate to all the international bridges in the Valley,” Hinojosa told the Rio Grande Guardian. “We are focusing on the infrastructure the bridges need to accommodate the increase in commercial trucking that is coming from Mexico.”
Asked when a formal announcement about the $40 million investment might come, Hinojosa said possibly as early as this month. He stressed that the funding would not only be for Hidalgo County but also Cameron County.
“In the past, we have not paid attention, at the state level, to the infrastructure needs of our land ports and our water ports. In the last couple of sessions we have come up with a different approach and found the funding for the water ports, like the Port of Brownsville and the Port of Corpus Christi, and also the land ports, such as the Pharr Bridge, which is getting busier all the time, not to mention Anzalduas and Donna,” Hinojosa told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“We understand the importance the bridges play and the contribution they make to our economy. They are an important generator of good-paying jobs.”
In his speech at the ribbon-cutting, Hinojosa focused on the rate of growth of the Valley.
“Anytime you drive around the Valley there’s another project going up, another project being completed. The Rio Grande Valley is one of the fastest growing areas in the state of Texas. We in Austin recognize that,” Hinojosa said, adding that state leaders are looking to find more funding for the region.
“The growth here is going to be tremendous,” Hinojosa said, referring to the area around Owassa Road. “If you look into the future, this is a key highway to the growth of the medical school.”
In his remarks, Hinojosa noted plans to expand the Pharr Interchange that connects I-2 with I-69 Central, infrastructure investment at local international bridges, and the need to merge the Valley’s three MPOs. He said if the Valley’s three MPOs were merged, the region could look forward to an additional $140 million in transportation funds over a ten year period.
Interviewed by the Rio Grande Guardian about the expansion of Monte Cristo Road, otherwise known as FM 1925, Hinojosa said:
“We have a ten year plan and as we see the tremendous growth in the Valley, we have to plan ahead, to make sure we have the proper infrastructure in place to accommodate the growth, not only the expansion of our population but also our economy. One of the things we have found out through studies is the majority of people who travel to South Padre Island are from Hidalgo County and Monte Cristo Road is one of the few roads that goes straight to South Padre Island.
“We are looking to connect that to the second bridge, FM 1925. They (South Padre Island officials and Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority) have done all the environmentals, all the schematics. It is only a matter of time before they start constructing in conjunction with TxDOT.”
Asked about the possible merger of Hidalgo County MPO, Harlingen-San Benito MPO, and Brownsville MPO, Hinojosa said:
“We continue to negotiate and work on that. We are having meetings. If we merge the MPOs, we will be able to access $140 million more over a ten year period. Eighty percent of the (state) money goes to the top five MPOs (in Texas). If we merge, we will be able to have a seat at the table when that 80 percent of the funding gets distributed. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not working together to make that a reality. And, the existing MPOs would not lose a single penny if they merged.”
Owassa Road expansion
In addition to Hinojosa, those speaking at the $5.2 million Owassa Road expansion celebration included Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, Texas Department of Transportation Pharr District Engineer Pete Alvarez, and Hidalgo County MPO Executive Director Andrew Canon. Enriqueta Caballero, director of border affairs in the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, was one of many VIPs in the audience. Others included Hidalgo County Tax Assessor & Collector Pablo “Paul” Villarreal, Pharr City Commissioner Eleazar Guajardo, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s district director, Ana Garcia.
Mayor Hernandez explained that expanding Owassa Road from two to four lanes was one of the “premier projects” identified by the new administration when he took office.
“We are very excited. It is important for our region, not just for the city of Pharr, McAllen, or Edinburg. It is key to development and safety,” he said, noting that a Level 1 Trauma Center is being developed just down the street at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.
Hernandez said the project was “pretty much dead” a few years ago. He praised former Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 2, Tito Palacios and current Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 4, Joseph Palacios for their work on the project. He also praised TxDOT’s Alvarez, saying he was a “great engineer.”
Hernandez said what he likes about TxDOT’s involvement is that the agency “removes the bias” when making infrastructure improvement decisions. “They (TxDOT) do exactly what needs doing for the region,” Hernandez said.
In a news advisory, Hernandez said: “We took a very proactive approach to accelerate this project and have it open and operational to alleviate traffic conditions especially before the beginning of the school year. We are proud to have contributed considerably to the overall improvement of traffic flow for this major regional thoroughfare, and we are confident that drivers will appreciate the increased ease and accessibility that this road expansion will provide.”
TxDOT’s Alvarez said the Owassa Road expansion project was slated to take 22 months to complete but got finished in 14. He said it was a “true representation of partnership.” He thanked the City of Pharr, the City of Edinburg, Precinct 2, Precinct 4, and Hidalgo County MPO for working “tirelessly” with TxDOT over the last ten years.
“This is a main corridor to connect I-69 C to the McAllen region. It allows for economic development opportunities on both sides of the road, Edinburg, Pharr and, of course, McAllen as well,” Alvarez said.
“When infrastructure and economic development opportunities are coming to the Valley, the No. 1 question they ask is what is your connectivity to the interstate. Well, this was a very narrow road way, just two lanes, that some would consider unsafe. Now we have a beautiful roadway.”
Alvarez added: “In order for us to continue to thrive, to provide economic development opportunities for the entire region, we need to be visionaries. And it starts in the planning stages, identifying what our needs are for the Valley. Transportation infrastructure is key.”