AUSTIN, Texas – With the strong support of county commissioners along the border region, state Sen. Eddie Lucio has filed legislation to secure an additional $100 million for the Border Colonias Access Program and its roadway and drainage projects.

If the Legislature approves Senate Joint Resolution 48, the voters of Texas will be asked in a constitutional amendment referendum to approve a bond issue for this amount. The funding is deemed urgent by border counties because almost all the monies in the TxDOT administered program have been spent.

Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar
Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar

“I talked to Senator Lucio just before the session and I asked if he could bring some money back for the colonia access program. He told us he was going to try. Hopefully something will happen because we really, really, could do with some help,” said Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar.

There are more than 1,000 colonias in Hidalgo County and Cuellar has many hundreds in his precinct in the east of the county. Many colonias are situated in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding. Cuellar said the heavy rains the Rio Grande Valley has experienced since last September has led to deterioration in the quality of the access roads into many colonias. “We have had so much rain it has torn up our roads,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said the Border Colonias Access Program has had an “incredible impact” on the quality of life of colonia residents, allowing parents access to county roads and highways to get to work and allowing children to board buses to get to school.

“We have repaired a lot of roads with money from that program. As a matter of fact we are just finishing up some right now and we have got a couple more that are going to be the last ones with the money that is left. Both of them are in Mercedes. The program has been great for the border, especially for us in Hidalgo County. I really, really, really hope Senator Lucio can get something done. We wish him the best of luck,” Cuellar said.

The Secretary of State’s Office posted this information about the Border Colonias Access Program:

State Sen. Eddie Lucio
State Sen. Eddie Lucio

In 2001 the 77th Legislature passed Senate Bill 1296, introduced by Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. and signed by Governor Perry, which provides $175 million in bond revenues to provide financial assistance to counties for roadway projects serving border colonias. Unpaved and deteriorated roads in many of the state’s border colonia communities cause transportation and drainage problems. The constitutional amendment, approved by the voters of Texas, allowed the Texas Public Finance Authority to issue general obligation bonds to fund roadway improvements connecting colonias to public roads.

The “Border Colonia Access Program” administered by the Texas Department of Transportation is a collaborative effort involving the Office of the Governor, Office of the Secretary of State, Texas Water Development Board, Texas A&M Center for Housing and Urban Development and the 23 border counties.

The Border Colonia Access Program has allowed roadway improvements that have significantly increased the quality of life for our colonia residents. Once impassable dirt roads have now been paved and deteriorating roads have been repaved, improving the overall infrastructure of colonias in Texas.

Introducing SJR 48 at a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, Lucio said:

“In 2001, answering the call of then-Governor Rick Perry, the Texas Legislature passed and voters approved constitutional amendment (Senate Joint Resolution 37) that was aimed at providing critical help to address the substandard development in Texas’ colonias by funding critical colonia access roads that were lacking in the colonias. SJR 37 provided for limited assistance that addressed only a fraction of the need.

“SJR 48 addresses the lack of funding in the program by providing another referendum for an additional $100 million to be added to the program, upon voter ratification. SJR 48 proposes a constitutional amendment authorizing the issuance of additional obligations to provide financial assistance to counties for roadways to serve border colonias.”

There was no oral testimony for or against SJR 48 but three people submitted cards in support. They were Rhonda Tiffin, planning director and floodplain administrator for Webb County, John Henneberger, executive director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, and Jeanne Talerico, executive director of the Texas Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies. The Rio Grande Guardian contacted all three for a comment on Lucio’s legislation.

“Inadequate access and drainage infrastructure characteristic of impoverished colonias created before the state’s adoption of the model rules continues to be a financial burden on counties,” Tiffin told the Rio Grande Guardian. “Of particular concern are the financial strains placed on emergency services in response to flood events caused or worsened by the lack of proper drainage. Such events in affected areas risk lives, limit access for emergency response, and cause damage to both public and private properties. The tax supported financial impacts from such damages reach beyond the boundaries of the counties in which those subdivisions are located. With limited resources available at the local level, greater assistance is needed from the state.”

Henneberger said: “Back in 2001, Senator Lucio authored a similar Senate Joint Resolution to fund the paving of roads in colonias and those funds have now been exhausted so what he is trying to secure voter approval for additional money. Texas Low Income Housing Information Service is 100 percent in support of the new legislation. We work very closely with two community organizations in the Rio Grande Valley, La Unión del Pueblo Entero and ARISE, and both of those organizations work extensively in the colonias. We have been meeting and working with the leaders in the colonias and this issue of roads and drainage associated with roads has remained a big concern of theirs.”

The mission of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which Henneberger leads, is to support low-income Texans’ efforts to achieve the American dream of a decent, affordable home in a quality neighborhood.

Talerico said: “The border counties from Cameron to El Paso have such enormous need for the families that live in the colonia areas and there is just not enough funding to address those needs. It has gotten better but it continues to be a problem. So many of the families living in the colonias are living in such sub-standard conditions that I do think it is important to have more resources down there – just to get to a standard of living that is safe for people. I just think it is critical.”

Jeanne Talerico
Jeanne Talerico

The Texas Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies which Talerico heads is a trade association for the housing finance corporations that have been set up by cities and counties to do affordable housing in their jurisdictions.

Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios has dozens and dozens of colonias in his precinct. He said Senator Lucio deserves great praise for trying to secure additional funds for the Border Colonias Access Program.

“We have been the beneficiaries of the Border Colonias Access Program but in truth it has addressed merely a fraction of the dire need that we have in our rural communities,” Palacios said. “We continue to do our part with our local resources. We have done well by leveraging local monies and successfully pushing bond issuances for drainage and regional projects. But, the Border Colonias Access Program allows us to really catalyze roadway and drainage issues inside the colonias.”

Palacios said that just as Hidalgo County is growing, so are the proliferation of colonias. By way of an example he pointed to unincorporated San Carlos, a community comprising dozens of colonias just to the east of Edinburg. Its population now exceeds 6,000.

Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios
Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios

“The growth in the rural areas is almost equal to the growth inside our city boundaries. The rural communities continue to grow at a very aggressive rate. We have a grave, fiduciary duty meet the infrastructure demands that have been placed on the county. But, we cannot do it alone. The success has to be in working in partnership with our state legislators to address such a grave issue.”

Palacios said he is working with local community groups to secure more funding for colonias. He said he or key staff members are at the state Capitol on a weekly basis to push for additional funds.

“It is important we help the rest of the state understand the dire need that we have in South Texas, alongside the border. We wholeheartedly support this effort by Senator Lucio and we are doing our due diligence by working with other legislators to create a united front and hopefully getting this passed. We are hoping to pass a resolution at commissioner’s court next week in support of Senator Lucio’s efforts and hopefully our neighboring counties will do the same.”

John-Michael Torres, public information officer for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, said: “We support the proposal of more state funding for badly needed road improvements in the colonias. The proposed funding would also address the issue of drainage around the roads, which is one of the top issues for colonia residents.”

Sen. Lucio’s SJR 48 has been left pending in the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations.