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Pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for southbound empty trucks crossing Anzalduas International Bridge are, from left to right, Hidalgo Mayor Martin Cepeda, Mission Mayor Norberto 'Beto' Salinas, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, and Mexico's consul in McAllen, Guillermo Ordorica Robles. (Photo: Rio Grande Guardian/Ena Capucion)

MISSION, RGV – At a ceremony to celebrate the first southbound truck crossings at Anzalduas International Bridge, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa gave reporters a copy of a famous Rio Grande Valley photo.

The photo, from 1999, showed President Bill Clinton handing over the presidential bridge permit for Anzalduas International Bridge. Gratefully receiving the permit were McAllen Mayor Leo Montalvo, Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz, Mission City Manager Norberto ‘Beto’ Salinas and Congressman Hinojosa.

In his remarks at the truck crossing ceremony, Hinojosa spoke about the role he played in securing the bridge permit and how, in time, Anzalduaus International Bridge will help transform the Valley.

Hinojosa recalled getting a call from Dallas businessman Ray Hunt the day after he had first won election to Congress. The election was held on November 4, 1996. Hinojosa stayed up all night, obviously elated, watching the election coverage. The next day he went to his campaign office in McAllen talk to staff. There, he said, he got an unexpected call from Hunt, who was developing the Sharyland Plantation.

Hinojosa said Hunt insisted on calling him Congressman Hinojosa, even though Hinojosa would not be sworn into office until January, 1997. Hunt said he would like to set up a meeting in Hinojosa’s district office with a delegation of local economic development and real estate leaders, including Mike Allen, Keith Patridge and Mike Blum. Hunt said the delegation wanted to ask Hinojosa for help in securing a new presidential bridge permit.

“Mr. Hunt, I will be honest with you. I do not have the slightest idea what I have to do to help you get a permit but I understand from Mayor Leo Montalvo, that about half a million dollars has been spent with legal firms trying to get that presidential permit. So, what makes you think that if they could not do it, we can do it?” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa said Hunt replied: “Well, you do not know it can’t be done because you are a friend of Bill Clinton’s.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian immediately following the truck crossing ceremony, Hinojosa spoke more about how the presidential bridge permit for Anzalduas came about.

“I said, Mr. Hunt, I am going to be very honest with you, I have no clue what I have to do to respond to your request or to your delegation that is going to come and make that request. But, I will tell you this. If it can be done, I am going to look for the shortest route to be able to get from Point A to Point B, so that President Bill Clinton presents such a presidential bridge permit.”

Asked how it happened, Hinojosa recalled. “It was very early in 1999. President Clinton called my office and said, Rubén, I have got good news for you. I have dealt with the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and she and her staff are recommending to me that I issue such a permit. I said, Mr. President, you have made my day. The entire region of South Texas is going to benefit from your decision.”

Hinojosa said he asked President Clinton when he might be able to bring Valley mayors and elected officials to the White House to receive the presidential bridge permit. “He gave me a date very soon, within about 30 days. Sure enough, we had a delegation of 100 people from South Texas go to witness that presentation. I have a picture with the three mayors and myself with President Clinton as he handed that presidential bridge permit to us.”

Hinojosa, who is retiring as congressman in January, said he took great pride in the part he played in securing the presidential bridge permit. “I was able to lead the coalition and we were able to do what a group of lawyers from Washington, D.C., had not been able to do in three years and at a cost to our local cities half a million dollars. I was very proud.”

In his remarks from the podium at the bridge crossing ceremony, Hinojosa said those who worked for many years to get an international bridge in the McAllen-Mission area deserve praise.

“Let us not forget those who brought the idea of creating an international bridge here in this area. As your congressman, it is truly a pleasure for me to witness the Anzalduas International Bridge’s first commercial truck southbound crossing,” Hinojosa said.

“This is something that was long awaited, long overdue but from this point forward we are going to see tremendous amounts of revenue coming into this region and helping us as we improve our relationship with our friends to the south and that is the relationship between Texas and Mexico. Shorter crossing times in deep South Texas will incentivize businesses to send their trucks to our region, rather than through Laredo or other states like Arizona or New Mexico.”

Hinojosa paid tribute to the “strong coalition” of McAllen, Mission, Hidalgo and Granjeno working together. “This is an example of what is needed to get things done in Washington. We have to talk about the region and not one city. In Washington, they prefer we do more with less money and usually the projects that are introduced as regional projects are the ones that get funded because they see the cooperation that is going on and the creation of good-paying jobs that can be obtained as result of that. So, in closing, I congratulate our leaders for their hard work and dedication to this new project.”

What They Said

Here are some of the comments made by local dignitaries about the first truck crossings on Anzalduas International Bridge:

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling: “It has been more than two years of planning for this moment and now it is finally going to be a reality. It took a lot of cooperation from several different governmental entities on both sides of the border. I especially want to thank Senator John Cornyn and Congressman Henry Cuellar and their staffs. From a commerce standpoint, this is going to be a critical improvement for maquiladoras because they’ll be able to shorten the time it takes to return empty transporters saving not only time but money and helping the environment. The first international public – private partnership is now implemented.”

Mission Mayor Norberto ‘Beto’ Salinas: “In our partnership with McAllen, we understand the Anzalduas International Bridge is vital to our neighbors in Mexico because it’s the front door to our country.  We need to make trade more accessible and efficient for our region to prosper.  We had been working on this since we decided to build the bridge together.”

Hidalgo Mayor Martin Cepeda: “This project is about teamwork.  The cities of Hidalgo, McAllen and Mission decided to work together from the inception to now to make this a reality. We understand we are creating new avenues for trade through truck traffic in Mexico and the United States.”

McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez: “This is the culmination of so much work and it’s thrilling because it has been such a long wait. We are finally going to have southbound empties on Anzalduas. This is history in the making. This is the first binational agreement of its kind in the United States, where a municipality partnered with the Mexican federal government and we could not be more proud. I want to thank Mayor Darling for his leadership on this journey as well as recognize the City Commission’s perseverance and trust.”

Superintendent of Bridges for McAllen, Rigo Villarreal: “Seeing the first ever 18-wheeler cross southbound across Anzalduas International Bridge is going to be extraordinary. The best part is that we pulled those monies out of the infrastructure fund from our bridge revenues to get this done. Taxpayers did not foot the bill for this initiative. We are heading into a new direction of increasing revenues for bridge and our city bridge partners.”

Historic in Nature

The truck crossing is historic because the City of McAllen helped to pay for the infrastructure on the Mexican side of the bridge. The City of McAllen contributed approximately $1.1 million for the improvements on the Mexican side of Anzalduas Bridge.

Villarreal told the Rio Grande Guardian that the funds were used to build an exclusive lane for southbound empties and to heighten some of the canopies so trucks can pass through. Under the inter-institutional agreement of cooperation with the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Villarreal said, McAllen will recoup their costs and Mexico will receive 20 percent of the toll revenues collected, once it has paid back its debt.

“It is the first time a municipality in the United States has made a contribution of this kind to the Mexican federal government,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal added that commercial truck traffic is expected to grow exponentially in the Valley as a result of Mexico sending more of its fresh produce traffic through South Texas and as a result of an opening up of the energy sector to private investment in Mexico.

Editor’s Note: The photos in the slideshow that accompanies this story were taken by Rio Grande Guardian reporter Ena Capucion.