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HIDALGO, RGV – A busy and anxious time of the year for officials working at the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge are the summer months, when temperatures are routinely above 100 degrees and there are long wait times to cross the bridge.

Ambulances are called regularly because those waiting wilt and succumb to heat stroke.

McAllen Superintendent of Bridges Rigo Villarreal is acutely aware of the dangers and is doing something about it.

“When both you and I were outside right now we saw the long lines. I would not like to be out there waiting in line in the hot sun. I have experienced it. I’ve been in that line waiting an hour sometimes to cross over, and it’s not a good feeling,” Villarreal said. “You can be out there for at least an hour. But sometimes it goes all the way to one hour and a half. It can be unbearable.”

One way of reducing the wait times for those crossing on foot is through an expansion of the number of lanes used by Customs. At present there are only five lanes. Villarreal is trying to find the money to increase that to either eight or ten. More lanes will allow Customs to utilize more staff, and cut down the time it takes to cross the bridge.

“We want to expand the customs pedestrian area. Right now they only have space to process five pedestrian lanes. We want to increase that to eight to ten pedestrian lanes, so that they can add more staff in that area and expedite the crossing of these pedestrians,” Villarreal said.

The price for the additional lanes may be as high as $600,000 or $700,000, Villarreal estimates. However, he is determined to find the money.

“If we can’t get the money through legislation or through the state budget using CBI (Coordinated Border Infrastructure) funding, our bridge board will have to decide whether we use our Capital Improvement Fund monies. CBI funding comes from the federal government so if there’s enough of it to go around and we ask for it in advance, we may have an opportunity.”

Adding extra pedestrian lanes for Customs staff will be just the latest improvement at the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. Previously, Villarreal introduced canopies, water fountains, fans on the roof, and other electrical and plumbing renovations. These upgrades have cost upwards of $5 million.

“The Capital Improvement Fund was set up by the bridge board. For every bridge crossing we previously set aside 25 cents for the capital improvement projects,” Villarreal said. “Now it is up to 50 cents because of the great need that we have to secure the necessary infrastructure improvements here. So that money we’re setting aside is reinvested in the people that use the bridge.”

With bridge crossings ranging anywhere between 130,000 to 145,000 pedestrians per month, and 215,000 to 269,000 for vehicles a month, there are many incidents daily involving heat strokes and other illnesses due to the long wait lines.

“We’ve seen a big increase in our pedestrians crossing every month, so we want to make sure those crossers understand that we care about their hydration and we care about their safety. We want them to feel comfortable,” Villarreal added.

Editor’s Note: The photos in the slideshow were taken by Steve Gallegos/RGG.