WESLACO, RGV – State Rep. Armando Martinez says he is building support for legislation that could lead to light rail coming to the Rio Grande Valley.

The Weslaco Democrat’s bill, setting up a regional transit authority, is likely to be the top legislative issue for the Valley during the upcoming legislative session, alongside passage of a bill to set up a Level 1 Trauma Center.

Martinez, who is vice chair of the House Committee on Transportation, will file a bill this month to set up a regional transit authority. The new body, which will oversee bus and light rail systems in the RGV, will be administered through the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

State Rep. Armando Martinez speaks at a meeting of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

“The feedback we are getting is very positive. People are embracing light rail and the concept of regionalism,” Martinez said.

Over the last month Martinez has made pitches to both the LRGVDC and the RGV Small Cities Coalition. Both gave his project the thumbs up.

“All the mayors and commissioners were very excited about it. They said, hey, great, we are with you, 100 percent. Let us know what we can do to help. Many have agreed to pass resolutions,” Martinez said, referring to his presentation to the Small Cities Coalition. 

At the LRGVDC meeting, board members applauded Martinez.

“The members of the COG (Council of Government) have the vision for the Valley, they embrace regionalism,” Martinez said. “I would like them to come and testify in Austin, or pass resolutions from their respective cities in support. That will definitely help us get it over the goal line.”

Rancho Viejo Mayor Cyndie Rathbun was most enthusiastic.

“I am a newcomer to the Valley. I have been here about 15 years. It is absolutely shocking how much more traffic there is now, compared to when I came. We know there is only going to be more traffic,” Rathbun said at the LRGVDC meeting.

Martinez pointed to a feasibility study conducted in 2010 that showed light rail was economically viable. 

“Light rail in the Valley is economically viable. The cost of building the system is about $310 million,” Martinez told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, at the end of the LRGVDC meeting. “The feasibility study in 2010 said we would have a ridership of 16,000 per day, just in Hidalgo County.We think we could raise $1.6 million a month or $19 million a year, just from user fees alone. It will cost about $15 to $16 million to run it. So, we would be $4 million in the black.”

Martinez said his legislation does not give a transit authority taxing authority. Instead, the new entity could raise funds through fees paid by vehicles and passengers crossing the Valleys’s international bridges.

“The revenues would be divided. Twenty-five percent of the increase going to passenger, commercial or pedestrian traffic at the bridge, 50 percent going to light rail, and 25 percent to improving infrastructure around the bridge,” Martinez said.

During his presentation to the LRGVDC, Martinez paid tribute to the Council of Government for developing Valley Metro bus system and UT-Rio Grande Valley for providing so many riders.

“We need a strong bus system to make light rail work. Valley Metro has done a tremendous job. Now it is time for buses and rail to come together under one large umbrella,” Martinez said.

Asked how long the project would take to complete, Martinez said: 

“We acknowledge it is a massive project. However, we should not be deterred. If we do not plan ahead we will not have the ability to do it in the future. DART, the public transit system in Dallas, was established 1983 and it took them 13 years to get rail in place.”

He also reiterated the impact light rail would have on the region as a whole. 

“This is all about regionalism. This is a way to regionalize our mass transit. It will help us leverage larger federal funds,” Martinez said.

Martinez tried to pass bills during the last two legislative sessions that would establish a Valley-wide public transit authority. He is hoping the third time is the charm.

“A couple of sessions ago we filed the bill but there were still a lot of questions, especially among those cities that have their own transit systems. Last session we passed it in the House, but it got hung up in Senate. We will do an early filing for the upcoming legislative and push it through immediately, through the transportation committee, and get it to the Senate as soon as possible.”

Martinez knows he has to continue making presentations around the Valley in the run-up to the legislative session that starts in January 2019.

“We have to continue to talk to elected officials across the Valley. They will be in charge of the new entity,” Martinez said.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows an artist’s impression of the light rail DART project in Dallas, Texas. Photo courtesy of Robb Williamson.