MCALLEN, TX – The 102-mile Hidalgo County Loop, a 25-year project spearheaded by Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority, will be a toll road.
Pilar Rodriguez, executive director of the RMA, acknowledged as such in a presentation to McAllen Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors.
“Traffic revenue, because it is a toll road, is one of the things we have to look at very carefully,” Rodriguez said.
“The more traffic we have, the more revenue we generate, the faster we can service the debt, because we do have to go out and borrow money to build this facility.”
Last May, the Texas House voted against House Bill 2861–a bill that would allow the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to partner with private companies to move forward with several highway projects through tolling. Since then, TxDOT no longers turns to tolls as a source of funding and is working on turning some toll roads into free roads.
According to Rodriguez, the direction Hidalgo County RMA received from the Texas Department of Transportation is if the two were to partner up, the RMA could not use tolling as a source of funding. However, if the local RMA wished to proceed without TxDOT, then tolling is still considered an acceptable source of funding.
“Our frontage roads will be free and that is more to address local circulation,” Rodriguez told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the McAllen EDC meeting had ended.
“The toll road is intended for traffic that is not making local deliveries, not trying to get to the shopping mall, to the school or to the job. It is intended for goods that are trying to get to the area, through the area and out of the area. That is the traffic we’re targeting.”
During one of the Rio Grande Guardian’s Facebook livestreams last week, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said if the money comes from TxDOT, the Hidalgo County Loop would not have to be a toll road.
“We’re going back to this concept of regionalization and who gets the money for transportation and they’re the big [Metropolitan Planning Organizations] MPOs,” Garcia said. “So we need to become a bigger MPO [and] hopefully we’d be able to get more resources. But there is that possibility the [Hidalgo County Loop] will be a toll road. Hopefully not, but time will tell.”
At the McAllen EDC meeting, Rodriguez explained the RMA’s masterplan for the loop system.
“We hope to implement this plan over the next 25 to 30 years. It is approximately 102 miles of an expressway-type facility, main lanes, overpasses, frontage roads, interchanges. It will look a lot like Interstate 2 as a facility, but it is all planned to be a toll road. This is one of the financing tools we are using to get this project done today versus tomorrow.”
Rodriguez said the RMA has added a project called FM 1925, locally known as Monte Cristo Road.
“This is a project being undertaken jointly by Cameron County RMA, Hidalgo County RMA, and the Texas Department of Transportation to create a connection between Interstate 69-East and Interstate 69-Central. It will also connect to a future section of the loop, State Highway 68.”
Rodriguez ran through the monies the Loop could generate once it is built.
“After about 10 years the facility will generate about $70 million,” Rodriguez said. “At about the 20-year mark it will have generate about $132 million. At the 30-year mark it will have generated about $209 million and at the 40-year mark we will be somewhere north of $300 million in revenues.”
Rodriguez said these are very conservative projections. In fact, only 40 percent of the likely traffic is factored in. “We took the conservative approach, we are working with a budget that is extremely conservative,” he said.
These revenues are based on passenger traffic paying 16 cents a mile, and truck traffic paying 42 or 43 cents a mile. On a 12-mile segment of the Loop called the 365 Tollway, trucks might pay $5 or $6, while passenger vehicles, if they traveled the full 12 miles, would pay a two dollar toll.
Truck companies may be able to void the toll fee if they purchase an overweight permit.
“The Texas Legislature granted Hidalgo County the authority to grant permits for overweight trucks on the state highway system or on our facilities,” Rodriguez said. “If a trucking company obtains an overweight permit they will not have to pay an additional toll fee. The permit fee includes the toll portion of it to use the overweight quarter.”
The first part of the Loop to get built will be a section near to the Texas-Mexico Border. It is officially called the 365 Tollway. Rodriguez told MEDC that the 365 Tollway will be a 12.2-mile four-way lane from the Pharr International Bridge westward to the Anzalduas International Bridge. He said it will likely take 42 months to complete.
“This section along the border is what we have been focused on the past four or five years. It is called the 365 Tollway. We have quite a few ports of entry, we have Progreso, we have Donna, Pharr, Hidalgo and Anzalduas. These first segments we are focused on are designed to provide connectivity from the ports of entry to the interstate system,” Rodriguez said.
“So, we have really been focused on the 365 Tollway project. That is the official name. We received environmental clearance back in July 2015. We actually built the first segment, we started construction back in early 2016. It was a $19.4 million project and it was the infrastructure to connect to the Pharr international port of entry. So we built the Border Safety Inspection Facility Connector Road and then we built an overpass on San Juan Road. That project is already completed.
Phase Two of the 365 Tollway, Rodriguez said, will go from Military Highway at San Juan Road, north to the south levee at Cage Boulevard in Pharr, across to 23rd Street where it will cross over floodway at Ware Road and then parallels the north floodway levee until it gets to Anzalduas.
“We have received environmental clearance and all the right of way. And we have bid the project out. The project was advertised in late October and early November. We opened the bids November 10 and we received five bids. The project was estimated at approximately $169 million and the lowest bid came in at $202 million. So, we have a $34 million difference, which is about 15 percent. We have a 15 percent overage.”
Rodriguez said that through “value engineering” the cost of the project would be trimmed. However, he said this would not change the scope of the project.
TxDOT concurred with the lowest bid, which came from Johnson Brothers. “TxDOT has some skin in the game. They have to agree everything we do. It is a pretty bureaucratic process. We are using local, state and federal dollars.”
Rodriguez told the Rio Grande Guardian that Johnson Brothers is based out of the Dallas area. They belong to a parent company called Southland Holdings. Johnson Brothers is a heavy highway contractor, has a heavy highway division, utilities, material productions as well as a mining and tunnel division.
“We have a $34 million difference which is about a 15 percentage overage on the project. The Board of Directors has given the staff the direction that they would like to build the project as is–as bid and we’re working diligently to close that gap. We cannot change the scope of the project,” Rodriguez said.
“We’re looking for areas where you can save costs without reducing the quality of the project and that is called value engineering. We’ll look at material substitutions where the product is still the same, but it’s just a different cake mix so to speak that we’re utilizing.”
Construction on Phase 2 is likely to start in the next six months or so, Rodriguez told MEDC.
Phase 3, Rodriguez said, will see the 365 Tollway extended from FM 396/Anzalduas Highway to FM 1016/Conway Avenue in Mission, a 12.2 mile segment. He said Phase 3 has been cleared environmentally but no right of way has been purchased.
Rodriguez added that the 365 Tollway will feature continuously reinforced concrete pavement.
“This will be an all concrete facility from end-to-end [and] is designed to take truck traffic [because truck traffic] causes a lot of wear and tear on local roads,” Rodriguez said. “Our facility is designed to take not only legal weight truck traffic which is 80,000 pounds, but … we designed it for over 125,000 pounds.”
Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas.