DONNA, RGV – Donna officials predict their city’s economy will not only grow but also diversify following a key decision by the federal government that opens the way for expansion of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.

Under the Donations Acceptance Program, Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration can explore, foster and facilitate partnerships for port of entry infrastructure and technology improvements.

Under DAP, the City of Donna sought to construct and donate northbound commercial inspection facilities and related infrastructure and technologies at the Donna Rio-Bravo Port of Entry to CBP and GSA. Donna leaders said that having received federal approval for a public-private partnership they will plan, design, finance and construct inspection facilities at the bridge in order to have northbound loaded trucks utilize their bridge.

Ernesto Silva

“Recently, you have seen where Donna’s sales tax revenues have continued to grow along with its property tax base, thanks to major investment on the retail side,” said City of Donna interim city manager Ernesto Silva. “With northbound loaded trucks crossing our bridge, we are confident we will see investment in warehousing and manufacturing also. This will bring a whole different type of economic development that currently we do not have much of. We are excited to turn the page and move towards a sector of the economy that presently we do not tap into. It is very exciting news.”

Donna city leaders learned of the federal government’s approval for a public-private partnership under DAP on Wednesday. Other applications to receive approval came from Cameron County, Anzalduas International Bridge Board and the City of Laredo.

“The Donations Acceptance Program continues to prove an effective tool that border stakeholders may use to expedite port of entry improvements,” said Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan in a news release issued Wednesday. “The four selectees announced today submitted innovative and forward thinking infrastructure proposals that will support and improve the facilitation of future trade and travel demands. We appreciate their willingness to invest in improved border infrastructure and look forward to working with them and with future program partners to provide new and expanded services at ports of entry.”

McAleenan added that public-private partnerships are a key component of CBP’s Resource Optimization Strategy and allow CBP to provide new or expanded services and infrastructure at domestic ports of entry.

GSA Acting Public Buildings Service Commissioner Michael Gelber is also a big supporter of the Donations Acceptance Program.

“The Donations Acceptance Program provides the Federal Government an important opportunity to better support Federal inspection agencies and border communities. The projects selected this year will allow CBP, the municipalities and GSA to improve processing times at these distinct land ports of entry. This collaborative effort furthers GSA’s ongoing support of CBP’s work. Additionally, it facilitates trade and travel that is vital to not just these communities but our entire country,” Gelber said.

$40-$50 Million Project

Silva was project coordinator and consultant when planning for the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge began in 2003. He continued in this capacity all the way through to 2010. He then returned to assist the City of Donna on bridge development in 2014. Silva gave the Rio Grande Guardian an in-depth interview about the CBP-GSA announcement.

“This CBP-GSA decision allows us to build the facilities in order to accommodate loaded commercial trucks coming in from Mexico. We are extremely excited. We can now begin the planning and design of the facilities and hopefully be under construction soon. We will then be able to donate those facilities to the federal government. We can soon look forward to having trade and commerce coming across the Donna Bridge,” Silva said.

Asked how many new lanes will be added on the northside of the Donna bridge, Silva said: “Conceptually, we are calling for three but it depends what the final outcome is from the planning and design work we undertake, along input with GSA and Customs. This will determine how many lanes, how many inspection booths, how many x-ray machines, we install. This was the first step – getting it approved for us to begin the planning and design portion of the project.”

Asked how much the northbound inspection facilities might cost, Silva said: “For all of the facilities, including the inspection of empty and loaded trucks, northbound and southbound, we have an estimated cost of $40-$50 million.”

Asked if private funds might be used on the project, Silva said: “We think the funding will come through the City but we have been fortunate to receive some funding from TxDOT to pay for those facilities. Once we have all the facilities designed and ready to go, then, at that point, we will make sure all of the funding is available to pay for it.”

Asked what the time frame is, Silva said: “We are hoping that everything is completed and open for traffic sometime before December 2018, for loaded trucks coming north.”

Although a presidential permit to build an international bridge connecting Donna to Rio Bravo was obtained decades ago, the modern project started in 2003, with construction getting underway in 2007. The bridge opened in 2010, but the City soon learned there was a delay in securing funding from the federal government for commercial facilities.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela

“For the past ten years, the City has been attempting to have the project approved so that we could construct commercial facilities. Finally, we have got the go-ahead. This is great news and the best part about it is that this is a private-public partnership between the City of Donna and Homeland Security, which is what the federal government has been promoting over the last four or five years. They have wanted to see more public-private partnerships. This is a perfect project for that type of program,” Silva said.

Asked how infrastructure development was coming along on the Mexican side of the bridge, Silva said: “They are going to be constructing some facilities for southbound trucks on the Mexican side. Their facilities will be different because they do not have as much importing into Mexico, as we have importing into the U.S. You will have an investment in the region of $10-$15 million in their facility.”

Silva said the new loop around the southern part of Reynosa would not only help the Donna but also the bridges in Pharr and Progreso.

“The ability of trucks to head east around Reynosa to the Donna Bridge, as well as the Pharr Bridge and the Progreso Bridge, is very attractive to trucking companies coming up from Monterrey. We really see ourselves as part of a system where we compliment Progreso and Pharr. We can help the growth and development of all three areas, Weslaco, Donna and Pharr. Rather than looking at the bridges as competitors, with one bridge taking business away from another, we believe that opening up Donna to commercial traffic does allows for extra capacity. We can have loaded trucks of fruit and vegetables crossing in Pharr and trucks carrying corn or maize or grain crossing Progreso. It allows for Donna to be an alternative outlet, thus reducing the amount of congestion and wait time at the other ports.”

Asked for a wrap-up comment, Silva said: “This will allow our community to grow and reduce taxes and increase employment opportunity, as well as improve the quality of life of our residents. It is a great day for Donna and the Mid Valley in general. Hopefully, by working together, all the bridges can continue to flourish and allow for trade to move more quickly.”

State Rep. Armando Martinez

Elected officials also praised the CBP-GPS decision to expand the Donations Acceptance Program to include northbound inspection facilities for loaded trucks at the Donna bridge.

“Since my first term in Congress, I have worked with CBP and the City of Donna as well as the Mexican government to accomplish full commercialization of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge. CBP’s announcement today is significant because it allows Donna to move forward with the process of accommodating all types of traffic – personal vehicles and commercial truck traffic,” said Congressman Filemon Vela.

“Over the past several years, we have worked first to ensure empty trucks can travel southbound on the bridge. Next, we sought approval from CBP to allow northbound empty trucks. And today we are finally moving forward in the process of allowing fully loaded trucks to flow north and south. I applaud the City of Donna for having the foresight and taking the initiative to bring such a beneficial project to fruition. Donna is a model for the successful collaboration between our cities and the federal government, achieving efficiencies that will contribute greatly to the economic development of the Rio Grande Valley.”

State Representative Armando Martinez said: “This is a great accomplishment by the City of Donna. Improvements to border infrastructure serve multiple purposes, both increasing trade and improving border security. These improvements have driven up tax revenues in the City and have resulted in lower local tax rates for residents. I commend the City for its commitment to growing and developing the Donna Rio-Bravo Port of Entry as well as being selected for the Donations Acceptance Program.”

Editor’s Note: Reporter Dayna Reyes contributed to this story from Donna, Texas.