Pete Sepulveda, executive director of Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority.

BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley, Reynosa, and Matamoros had a combined population of 3.5 million in 2010 and by 2035 the number will have risen to eight million.

These figures were cited by Pete Sepulveda, executive director of Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, in a speech he gave at an international trade symposium held recently at the Brownsville Events Center.

“Our job is to ensure we have the infrastructure in place for orderly growth and development of the increase in population we will get. It does no good if people cannot get from one end of the Valley to the other,” Sepulveda said. “We are one big metropolitan area, whether people accept that or not. The more we work together, the more benefits we will derive from the different projects that we will work on.”

One of the Valley’s top transportation infrastructure projects, Sepulveda said, is construction of a second causeway to South Padre Island.

“That is huge project. We are deep into the environmental process. We really believe that in the next 18 to 24 months we will get the environmental clearance and move forward to the construction of that project,” Sepulveda said.

Because of the size of the project, and the fact that a second causeway would go over the environmentally sensitive Laguna Madre, a more “complex environmental document than normal” is required, Sepulveda acknowledged.

“The environmental phase on this project alone is about ten years. We have been at it for about eight years. So, we are at the tail end. We have submitted the final draft document to the Federal Highway Administration. We are working on some amendments that are needed to address different changes we are pursuing,” Sepulveda explained. “This is an exercise the Federal Highway Administration requires on projects, I believe, over $25 million.”

The good news, Sepulveda told the international trade symposium, is that that CCRMA was able to identify “some huge cost savings opportunities for us, some reductions in mitigation that is required by the federal agency.” As a result, he said, CCRMA is “moving forward and amending the necessary documents.” He said CCRMS hopes to have clearance within the next 18 to 20 months.

After the symposium had ended, Sepulveda was interviewed by veteran broadcaster Ron Whitlock, of Ron Whitlock Reports. Whitlock asked if CCRMA was hindered by the failure to get a key piece of legislation passed related to a second causeway for SPI. The legislation was filed by state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville.

“That was a funding tool that we had. Unfortunately, that didn’t go through. But, we are going to remain focused on the environmental right now. And, by next session, we will be ready to look at ways on how to build the causeway because there is a lot to do between now and then. From a funding standpoint as well,” Sepulveda told Whitlock.

Ron Whitlock interviews Pete Sepulveda

“I think this is a blessing in disguise. It might have opened up other funding options that we didn’t have, when we had the ability to do a public private partnership. We didn’t get everything we wanted out of the Legislature. But, we have got to stay focused because the key is getting it (the project) environmentally cleared. Once you do that, then other opportunities open up.”

Sepulveda said it can be the case that some agencies are reluctant to help until environmental clearance has been achieved. “Once you are, I think things start moving rather fast,” he said.

Whitlock also asked Sepulveda if President Trump might be able to help via an executive order that does away with some of the environmental safeguards put in place by the Obama administration. Whitlock pointed out that Trump has said he wants to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure projects.

“I think one of the things that he (Trump) can do and I think there is a push already is for new projects that need federal regulatory relief. In other words, projects that have been stalled for years going through the federal process. That is us. That (the second causeway project) would fit the criteria. So, we are pursuing that option of getting, not necessarily waiving the environmental process, but if they can expedite the review of our documents, that’s huge.”