BROWNSVILLE, Texas – When it comes to building a second causeway to South Padre Island, the state legislature failed the Rio Grande Valley this legislative session.
Cameron County leaders were hoping state lawmakers would find $3 million so that an environmental impact statement could be produced. It did not happen. And now, because local leaders came away empty handed, Valley residents are going to have to step up to the plate.
Cameron County is slated to chip in $1.5 million. South Padre Island will likely pony up $1 million. And Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority (CCRMA) will provide $500,000.
In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, CCRMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda gave an update on where the second causeway project stands.
“The project was placed on hold back in December 2017 because we were developing it as a toll project. There was a change in the governor’s policy towards toll projects. Since that time we have been on hold,” Sepulveda said.
“Unfortunately, we had already done a draft environmental impact statement. We had done a public hearing. We had done a value engineering session where we had gotten some really good recommendations.”
Sepulveda said the engineering session had determined that the cost of the project could be lowered substantially if the amount of mitigation required was lowered.
“It was very unfortunate that we were placed on hold after that. We have spent the last couple of years trying to convince TxDOT that we need to move forward with the project. Unfortunately, through two legislative sessions we still don’t have authority for public-private partnerships and so we cannot continue to deliver the project as a toll project.”
Because state leaders will not allow a second causeway to be a tolled, Cameron County leaders say they are going to have to move forward another way.
“We have to look at the traditional TxDOT method of funding projects, which might take longer. But, nonetheless, we feel that is the only realistic option at this time. So, we tried to get funding during the past legislative session to complete the environmental studies. To no avail. We did not have any luck. We could not get the funding,” Sepulveda said.
“So, at this point the only way that we can get the project moving is locally, between the county, the City of South Padre Island and the CCRMA. We get together and combine our resources and complete the document. And so that is the plan at this point – to move forward and try to complete the environmental phase, develop the project as a non-toll project and then hopefully, by the time we can get the environmental clearance we could have convinced TxDOT to assist in the funding the cost of engineering and then, eventually, the cost of construction.”
Asked how much a second causeway would cost in total, Sepulveda said: “Based on the value engineering we that we had done, we are looking at about $400 million.”
Asked how much the environmental studies would cost and who would pay for it, Sepulveda said: “Roughly about $3 million. It will all be local. Right now we are looking at probably half a million from the RMA, a million from the City of South Padre and one and a half from the county.”
Asked when the environmental studies might be completed, Sepulveda said: “From when we start to when we get the clearance, probably about 24 or 30 months.”
Asked if the Texas Department of Transportation would complete the environmental studies, even though the funding was being generated from local sources, Sepulveda said: “No, we will have to get a consultant to do that.” However, he said the result of the study would be acceptable to TxDOT.
While local leaders are disappointed the second causeway project has stalled because of a change in policy at the state level, they are not giving up. “We can’t just sit and do nothing,” Sepulveda said.
Asked why the second causeway is important, Sepulveda said: “South Padre Island and the whole Laguna Madre area merits a second causeway. We have got to move on it and then eventually, hopefully, convince the state that it is of benefit to the entire state of Texas and get TxDOT to jump on board on the project.”
Mapping out a timescale, Sepulveda said: “We will start with completing the environmental phase and then, within that timeframe period we will work TxDOT and see how we can get TxDOT to become a partner and participate financially on the design and engineering of the project, and then, eventually, the construction of it.”
Asked how highly ranked the second causeway is at the local level, Sepulveda said: “In the CCRMA it has a high priority. At the RGV MPO it is in the top five priorities. Everybody, I believe, understands the need for it. That is why we can no longer afford not to do anything. We have got to move on it somehow.”
RGV MPO stands for Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Asked why the second causeway project is of statewide import, Sepulveda said: “It is an evacuation route. Obviously, there is only one access point to South Padre Island, today. It is of economic benefit to the State of Texas. The state generates a lot of sales tax from this area and so it is the jewel, for the whole state of Texas, South Padre Island. I don’t think there is any other area in the state that has what we have and so the state needs to take ownership and become a partner with us and get this done.”
There are two other highway projects that are connected to the second causeway project. One is a stretch of highway that would go from the second causeway to Harlingen. The other is a stretch of highway from Harlingen to Edinburg. Asked how these projects are progressing, Sepulveda said:
“That section on the I-69 Connector, from Edinburg to Harlingen, TxDot is working on the environmental document. They are in the environmental phase. And then that portion from Harlingen to the second causeway, we have not done any work on it because it, too, got stopped in December 2017 because we were developing it as a toll project. We are probably going to have to go back and do the same thing we are doing with the second causeway.”
Asked if CCRMA could go ahead with the second causeway without the other two highway projects, Sepulveda said:
“We could but eventually we are going to need all three projects. We need that connectivity to the Edinburg-McAllen-Pharr-Mission area. It makes a lot of sense. For people going to South Padre Island, for UTRGV, which has campuses all over the Rio Grande Valley, for traffic itself. For SpaceX, the Port of Brownsville. There are a lot of employees that are going to travel that road to get to their work, whether they are coming into Cameron County or they are people from Cameron County going into Hidalgo County. Those are regional projects that are needed.”
Sepulveda added: “I hope that the RGV MPO takes a little bit more of an aggressive approach and tries to get funding from the state for these projects.”
South Padre Island leaders are very keen to see a second causeway built. Ed Caum, executive director of SPI’s convention and visitors bureau said his board of directors are asking the City of South Padre Island to take $300,000 out of reserves to put toward the environmental study.
“And we are partnering with the county and there are some other partners coming to the table. So that is supposed to be jump started in the next three months so we are making sure we have money in the coffers to do so,” Caum said.
“It is going to cost about $3 million for that study. We want to make sure that we are one of the first coming to the table with some skin in the game, to leverage other Valley resources. I do know Cameron County has a letter of intent that is on the table as well. But, now is the time to do it.”
Caum said he had heard that the state legislature did nothing to help the Valley further its goal of building a second causeway.
“Nothing went through the legislature this last session. So, we have got these two years to line up, to make sure we have got our ducks in a row to make that move. It will tie in with some of the other infrastructure that is being done here in the Valley. I am really appreciative of the cities in the Valley all working together. With the MPO now in place I think that is going to help us leverage some more funds for infrastructure, particularly for that second causeway.”
SPI-based realtor Tom Goodman is on Caum’s board of directors.
“The second causeway has been a long time effort. Really, it becomes a human nature story as well in that you have a tremendous number of people in the Valley that would love to be here out on the beach but if you come out here on Saturday it can take you an hour to cross the bridge. It becomes inaccessible to the public as a result,” Goodman said.
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