MCALLEN, RGV – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling says he is going to drive the first ever 18-wheel truck southbound across Anzalduas International Bridge and that McAllen’s superintendent of bridges, Rigo Villarreal, will ride shotgun.

The ceremonial event is being planned for early March. The first dollar collected from the toll crossing will be framed and mounted in Villarreal’s office.

“I am driving the first truck and Rigo is going to be my back up,” Darling said, discussing the opening of Anzalduas to empty commercial vehicles at a McAllen Chamber of Commerce governmental affairs committee meeting on Wednesday.

The event will be historic because the City of McAllen helped pay for the infrastructure on the Mexican side of the bridge. It is the first time a municipality in the United States has made a contribution to the Mexican federal government for such a purpose.

“It is going to be exciting. I told the mayor to get in a truck a week or so before so he can learn how to put the truck in gear,” Villarreal joked, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian after the McAllen Chamber meeting was over. “It is exciting because, after such a long wait, we are finally going to have southbound empties on Anzalduas. This is the first binational agreement of its kind in the United States, where a municipality partnered with the Mexican federal government.”

At his speech to the McAllen Chamber, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling referenced a loop being built in Hidalgo County by its regional mobility authority.
At his speech to the McAllen Chamber, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling referenced a loop being built in Hidalgo County by its regional mobility authority.

Asked how much money the City of McAllen contributed for improvements on the Mexican side of Anzalduas Bridge, Villarreal said: “About $1.1 million and we got that money out of the infrastructure fund from our bridge revenues. We did not ask the taxpayers to pay for it and we did not go out for a bond.”

Asked how the $1.1 million is being spent, Villarreal said: “We are building an exclusive lane for southbound empties and a small bridge over a canal. We are also heightening some canopies so the trucks can pass through.”

Under the agreement, Mexico will receive 20 percent of the toll revenues collected for southbound empties, once it has paid back the funds spent on infrastructure on the Mexican side of the bridge.

In his remarks at the McAllen Chamber event, Mayor Darling said an effort is underway to allow northbound truck traffic at Anzalduas also. Currently, only non-commercial vehicles are allowed to cross. “Mexico would really like us to have northbound facilities for the empties,” Darling said.

Darling said getting permission to have northbound empties has been a “moving target” because the U.S. government has been changing its requirements.

“They said, if you build two passenger lanes we will give you northbound empties. We spent $4 million to do that. Then they said, we will give you northbound empties if you can get the maquilas to agree to cross only at night. The maquila association agreed. We went to Washington and they said, we have one more request. We want you to be a full commercial crossing. We said, okay but that is going to cost $32 million. Now, it has risen to $62 million.”

Interviewed later, Villarreal said: “They (Customs and Border Protection) want us to do a full northbound cargo facility. That is estimated to cost about $63 million. Clearly, it will take us a while to get that money.” Villarreal said Darling has written a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and key members of Congress to ask if it could be done in stages. “Let us do northbound empties right now. It would only cost about $4 million. We have $4 million for this, CBP money, coordinated border infrastructure money that was allocated a few years ago by the Texas Department of Transportation.”

At the McAllen Chamber event, Darling also spoke about new state and federal funding that is coming to the border region for bridge infrastructure.  He said Texas Governor Greg Abbott has a program for congestion relief, with much of the money going to the big metro areas like Houston and Dallas. Darling said that on a recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley by state Senator Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Committee, and Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Tryon D. Lewis, he asked about more state funding for international bridges.

“I said, I know you don’t think we have a congestion problem, other than at the (I-69/I-2) intersection at certain times of the day. But when you think about it, the state of Texas does not end at the bridges, it ends at the middle of the bridge. We have four hour waits on our bridges. He (Chairman Lewis) kind of looked at me strange. The state needs to think about that because millions of dollars of business moves across our bridges every day and thousands of people cross every day and the state is not really paying attention. But, we did get $60 million dedicated. That is great.”

Darling said Gov. Abbott also has new federal funds for border projects. He said Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Filemon Vela “worked hard” to get the funding. Darling said about $25 million in new federal funds are available but, rather than add that to the $60 million the State of Texas has allocated, the $25 million is likely to be at the expense of some of the $60 million. “Instead of $85 million it is back down to $60 million. We are working on that. It is one of the challenges we have,” Darling said. “Corpus Christi is working on a billion-dollar bridge. If you compare Corpus Christi’s population to that of Brownsville and us, we have 40,000 more people and we don’t get billion-dollar bridges. That is why we created the (RGV) Large Cities Coalition so we can go up there (to Austin) together (and push for more funds).”

Rigo Villarreal
Rigo Villarreal

“I want to be very clear, both Senator Nichols and Chairman Lewis are very, very receptive to border issues,” Darling said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian after the meeting ended.

On another transportation funding matter, Darling spoke to the McAllen Chamber about the possibility of merging the Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations. The MPOs distribute federal and state funds for transportation projects. Darling said the “Big Five” are currently able to access discretionary funds for transportation projects but the Valley cannot. The Big Five are Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Austin. He said if the three Valley MPOs were merged the Valley could join this illustrious group.

“If we merge, with our population of 1.3 million we would be part of that. We are being told that it is the case but no one is guaranteeing us that. What we really need is something tangible, a letter or a public statement that says, if we merge we will get a seat at the table. Until we get that Brownsville is a little bit reluctant to join. I don’t blame them because as things stand we are still going to get the same amount of money we have had. Until we can show our partners we can get additional monies, it (a merger of the three MPOs) is not going to happen,” Darling said. He said Villarreal is penning a letter to TxDOT on the issue.

Darling concluded his remarks about bridge and road infrastructure by saying something positive has come from the surge of undocumented immigrants from Central America.

“One of the good things about the border crisis is they (national politicians) have all been down here to ride on a boat and have a press conference. They see that this is a great place. No longer do they think we are a dusty border town. They get a sense of how important commerce is when they go to the bridges. The immigration crisis has had a negative impact, in terms of people saying it (the Valley) is dangerous. But it has also had a positive impact because we are getting people come down here who had never come before.”

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Villarreal said things are looking up when it comes to more resources for border international bridges. “Right now things are very positive. Things are turning around. We did not have CBI (coordinated border infrastructure) money before. Now we have it. I think we are going to see a number of improvements.”

Villarreal added that he is planning to visit Mexico City with Mayor Darling and possibly McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez. He said it could happen next week. “We are trying to get the hours of operation for the empties sorted out and to let the Mexican government know all the things we are doing to promote northbound empties. We are doing a lot.”