BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Pete Sepulveda, Jr., is no stranger to opening new trade corridors between the U.S. and Mexico.

Working for the City of Pharr he played a key role in getting all the permitting in place for the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The bridge recently celebrated its 20th year of operation.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, working this time for the City of Eagle Pass, Sepulveda played a key role in getting all the permits in place for the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras Camino Real International Bridge. And, Sepulveda was international bridge system director for Cameron County when Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates opened in 1999.

Next up for Sepulveda, who is also Cameron County Administrator, is opening the first new rail crossing between the United States and Mexico in over 100 years. The rail crossing will link Brownsville and Matamoros and, on the U.S. side is known as the West Rail Relocation Project.

“We are about 90 days from completing and placing in operation the first international rail bridge between the United States and Mexico in 107 years. That is the West Rail Relocation Project. It starts at the switchyard in Olmito, north of Brownsville, goes west and then south into Mexico. Construction on both sides is about 99 percent complete,” Sepulveda said, in a presentation he made at the Border to Border Transportation Conference in McAllen last month.

“We are in the process of relocating the VACIS (Vehicle and Cargo Imaging System) unit, which is the x-ray units, on both the Mexican side and the U.S. side, and hopefully in the first quarter of 2015 we will place that in operation and that will complete a project that began in 2001. It is an international project, very complex. For those of you who have worked on international bridge projects, you know the complexity.”

Sepulveda explained that financing an international rail bridge is more difficult than financing an international road bridge because with a road bridge a governmental body can charge a toll.

“This particular project was a lot more difficult. Normally, when we need to do an improvement on one of our international bridges we sell toll revenue bonds. We have a 60-year history of owning an international bridge so going to Wall Street and getting financing is a slam dunk. For an international rail bridge where you cannot charge a toll fee it makes it a little bit more difficult to finance,” Sepulveda said.

“Nonetheless, utilizing probably ten, 12 different sources of funds, we were able to get the funding. On the U.S. side it is $40 million project and on the Mexican side it is an $80 million project. So, it is a $120 million project and, hopefully, in the next 90 days it will be placed in operation.”

CCRMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda, Jr., says developing I-69 has been a 'once-in-a-lifetime' project
CCRMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda, Jr., says developing I-69 has been a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ project

Sepulveda was born in Rio Grande City and earned a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance at Texas A&M University. In his presentation at the Border to Border Transportation Conference, Sepulveda concentrated on the regional projects the CCRMA has worked on. He said CCRMA has four fulltime employees. In addition to himself he said there is a chief financial officer, a marketing officer and an accountant. He said CCRMA has just celebrated its tenth anniversary and has projects on the go worth $2 billion. He said the authority has worked on rail projects, highway projects, and international bridge projects, and that the partnerships it has developed at the federal, state and local level has led to important regional projects being developed to the north and west of Cameron County.

Sepulveda listed two reasons for CCRMA’s success, which has been recognized by the Texas Transportation Commission. One is continuity – three of its seven board members have been there from the beginning. The other reason, he said, is the partnerships it has built up, most notably with the Texas Department of Transportation. “We have leveraged a lot of funding from TxDOT and that has made us successful,” he said. Sepulveda then listed the top goals the CCRMA board set for itself. “At the end of the day we are about creating jobs, improving economic development, creating a better quality of life, improving mobility for our region, including Mexico, alleviating congestion in urban areas and ensuring efficient trade corridors,” he said.

Sepulveda said it is important CCRMA, working with others, develops a “sustainable” transportation system because the Rio Grande Valley and its neighbors to the south are growing at a fast clip.

“In 2010, we had a population of 3.5 million. The projection is 7 million, in other words a doubling of the population in 30 years. Our chairman (David Allex) always criticizes this figure. He says it should really be nine million. Whether it is seven or nine it is a lot. We are trying to make sure we have the proper transportation infrastructure that will allow us to make sure we have orderly growth in our community as our population grows,” Sepulveda told the Border to Border Transportation Conference. He was referring to the combined population of the Valley and its neighbors to the south, Reynosa, Matamoros and Rio Bravo.

Sepulveda said that over the last ten years, CCRMA’s work has expanded from two projects to over 20. He said two of them are as big as one is ever likely to work on – upgrading U.S. 77 to interstate standards between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, and building a second causeway to South Padre Island.

With regard to the I-69 East interstate project he said things have worked well with TxDOT. He said the state agency has focused on finding construction funding while CCRMA and has covered development costs. He gave two examples. “The RMA has developed projects north of the county, such as the overpasses in Willacy County. TxDOT came to us and said we do not have money for design and engineering. So, we spent $4 million for design and engineering and they came up with $28 million for construction. For the Sarita overpass project, we paid for the environmental assessment and they (TxDOT) paid the design and construction. Today, both of those overpasses are open for traffic.”

The good news about the I-69 East project, Sepulveda said, is that the entire route – all 125 miles – has been environmentally cleared. “There are four more projects on (State Highway) 77 to complete. They are in Nueces and Kleberg counties. We are about $200 million away from being able to sign the 125-mile route as an interstate. The same thing needs to happen on (State Highway) 281. We will need both of these corridors (upgraded to interstate standard) in order to have orderly growth and development in the Rio Grande Valley,” Sepulveda said.

The other major, “once in a lifetime,” project CCRMA is working on, Sepulveda told the Border to Border Transportation Conference, is a second access point to South Padre Island.

“The island is only half a mile wide and three miles long. There is no access to north, so that is as much as it can grow. Twenty percent of county’s tax base comes from South Padre Island. If we were able to provide access to the north, that island has the ability to double or triple in growth. You all can figure what that does to our tax valuation. So, this is a very important project,” Sepulveda said.

He said CCRMA is “deep into the environmental assessment phase” for the second causeway project, which will see development over the environmentally sensitive Laguna Madre. “In January we will send a final environmental impact assessment to the Federal Highway Administration. A Record of Decision will come in or around November, 2015. Concurrent to the environmental phase we are developing a financial plan.”

Sepulveda was asked whether financing for a second causeway to South Padre Island would be difficult when he spoke to members of Congress at the Mission Chamber of Commerce office last May. He said he did not believe so because CCRMA has been allowed by state officials to enter into a comprehensive development agreement with the private sector. He said if historical growth patterns are maintained, CCRMA will have over $400 million to work with thanks to transportation reinvestment zone income. “Funding is the easy part. Environmental is more difficult,” Sepulveda told the members of Congress.

At the Border to Border Transportation Conference, Sepulveda pointed out that the Texas Transportation Commission has allowed nine comprehensive development agreement projects to go ahead across the state and that two are being developed by CCRMA. “That gives you the ability to enter a public private partnership and negotiate up to a 52 year concession agreement with a private developer,” he said.

Another interesting point about the South Padre Island project, he said, is that CCRMA has, through its studies, found that on a peak weekend 40 percent of the traffic going to the Island comes from Hidalgo County. “That is huge. It really makes it a regional transportation project,” he said.

Another project CCRMA is working on is the FM 550 toll road that will link I-69 East to the Port of Brownsville. Partially completed, it is the first toll road in South Texas, with two gantries already open. “This too has regional implications,” Sepulveda said. “On a daily basis 100 trucks from the Pharr International Bridge go to the Port of Brownsville. They get there via FM 550.” He said the CCRMA is working on a plan to allow trucks from the Pharr International Bridge, trucks from the three international bridges in Cameron County, and trucks using FM 550 to use the same toll tags.

The final project Sepulveda mentioned at the Border to Border Transportation Conference is a link between I-69 Central in Edinburg and I-69 East north of Harlingen along FM 1925. He said four miles of this project are in Hidalgo County and six miles are in Cameron County. He said the link would then be extended eastwards to South Padre Island via the planned second causeway. Eventually, Sepulveda said, TxDOT would like to see FM 1925 extend westwards to Starr and Zapata counties. For now, though, it is a project being developed jointly between CCRMA and Hidalgo County RMA. “This is a great project (bearing in mind) the UT-Rio Grande Valley and the UTRGV Medical School component and the second access to South Padre Island. It will be an alternative to I-2 (Expressway 83).”