SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – Pete Sepulveda, Jr., executive director of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, says it is “extremely doable” to build a dedicated bike lane on the South Padre Island Causeway.
Speaking to SPI economic development leaders on Tuesday, Sepulveda said he will make the case for such a project at CCRMA’s July board meeting. He pointed out that there was a lot of support for a bike lane to be built on the planned second causeway to SPI.
“We had a lot of bicyclists attend the (July, 2012, public) hearing and they requested a bike lane on the second access. We looked at that. It was cost-prohibitive. But, at our July board meeting I will present the board of directors with an option,” Sepulveda said.
“We have got a very, very, rough, preliminary study for adding a bike lane on the existing causeway. Based on the cost estimates I have been given I believe it is something that is extremely reasonable, extremely doable, and as soon as I present that to the board and get the authority to move forward I will get with TxDOT and hopefully start tapping into some of the category funding that is available for hike and bike trails statewide.”
Sepulveda said as he was studying the idea of a bike lane for the causeway he got an email from Congressman Vela’s staff wanting to talk about potential funding for hike and bike trails. “They might be able to tap into some funds at the federal level for us as well. So, we will definitely pursue that. I have three different schematics that have been presented by our consultant so we will be presenting those to the board in July.”
Much of Sepulveda’s presentation at the SPI EDC meeting was focused on the construction of a second causeway for SPI. He said CCRMA is “very, very, close to getting environmental clearance” for the much anticipated project. “Everything looks extremely good right now. We have done traffic revenue studies. We have looked at other projects that will be part of the ultimate configuration,” Sepulveda said of the project. He pointed out that in July, 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation held a public hearing about the project at the SPI Convention Center. “It was one of the most successful public hearings TxDOT has had statewide, 800 people attended.” Of those that gave verbal or written comments, “83 percent were in favor,” Sepulveda said.
Sepulveda said there are two other highway projects that will be built simultaneously with the second causeway. When all three are built residents living in the Edinburg, Mission, McAllen and Pharr area will have easy access to South Padre Island, he said.
“We have got two other projects that will complete the ultimate configuration. We are working on the Outer Parkway project which will connect I-69 E to the second access and then from I-69 E west on FM 1925 we want to connect all the way to Edinburg. All three projects are independent, they are three separate projects but the timing and scheduling of all three is pretty much the same. And so we plan to have 1925 and the outer parkway and the second access in place and so that will give an individual connectivity from Edinburg, Pharr, McAllen, Mission area all the way to South Padre Island,” Sepulveda explained.
Sepulveda pointed out that multiple times, the Federal Highway Authority has said that the second causeway project is the most environmentally complex project they are working on in the whole nation. “We have got different experts working on different mitigation plans. It is all coming together,” he said.
With regard to the environmental impact statement for the second causeway, CCRMA submitted the final environmental impact study back in December. “Since then, on a weekly basis we have conference calls with the Department of Transportation in Austin and the Federal Highway Administration. We have coordinated with the cooperating agencies. We have completed some of the analysis they have requested,” Sepulveda said.
Among the things CCRMA are working on are biological surveys, a seagrass mitigation plan, a revenue study and a draft financial plan. A schematic design is 90 percent complete. “Hopefully in the next 25 to 60 days the schematics will be 100 percent complete,” Sepulveda said.
Sepulveda then highlighted the speed at which things were moving. He said environmental clearance from the Federal Highway Administration for a second causeway could come any time between November, 2015, and March, 2016. Simultaneously, he said the CCRMA will be working with TxDOT to plan how the second causeway will be constructed. “They (FHA) will be the agency giving the environmental approval. Congressman Vela has been extremely helpful in the process. We are working with TxDOT right now on how to proceed. By state law we have the ability to enter into a public-private partnership with a private developer. We are negotiating a schedule with TxDOT right now on when they can turn us loose to begin the procurement process. I venture to say it will be sometime this fall, maybe as early as September, a couple of months away.”
To the lay person discussion of and planning for a second causeway for South Padre Island might seem to have been going on forever. However, Sepulveda said in the grand scheme of things, it has not been that long. “It has taken a long time but when you look at the time frame for an environmental impact study we are probably 24 to 30 months ahead of the normal schedule that it would take. It has taken a lot of cooperation by a lot of different agencies.”
Sepulveda said it is a big help that the leadership and direction of CCRMA has been steady for a number of years. “We have had a lot of continuity at our board level. We have had the same board chairman for 11 years and the same board members for four and half years now. That continuity really, really, helps us.” He also praised TxDOT and the Federal Highway Authority for investing “a lot of resources” into the project. “It is really, really, looking good. It might be a good idea to come back in about 60 days because everything is coming together pretty quickly. September is when we are aiming to start the procurement process.”
Sepulveda concluded his remarks by focusing on the value of CCRMA’s transportation reinvestment zone system. “We probably have the largest transportation reinvestment zone in the whole state of Texas. When we did the analysis about three years ago the net present value of our TRZ system was $400 million. We had a consultant develop an update. It is now valued at $500 million. This gives us an excellent funding tool for us to use, not only on this project but the entire system of projects that we are working on. It has been a lot of time, a lot of work, but it is all coming together now, pretty fast.”
Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas. The photos in the slideshow were provided by Michelle Lopez of Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority.