Watch: Caroline Mays discusses the new Texas-Mexico Border Transportation Master Plan:

MCALLEN, Texas – Having listened to the views of stakeholders when developing the new Texas-Mexico Border Transportation Master Plans, TxDOT is moving ahead with plans to improve connectivity between the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo.

This was confirmed by Caroline Mays, director of the Freight, Trade and Connectivity Section of the Texas Department of Transportation during a Zoom conversation with the Rio Grande Guardian

The conversation focused on how the 400-page master plan was developed and what recommendations came out of it. The master plan projects that truck movements across Texas-Mexico border crossings will triple over the next 30 years. 

“One of the key comments we heard was, connectivity between border crossings, connectivity between border regions. And you in the lower Rio Grande Valley region, the biggest thing we heard was connectivity between the RGV and Laredo,” Mays said.

“So, that is one of the projects we are looking to initiate, probably within the next six months, to start looking at the east-west connectivity, the corridors, what are the issues, what needs to be done, what improvements need to be made, working with the two border districts to address that east-west connectivity between those two regions.”

Mays acknowledged that an increasing amount of truck movements are taking place between Laredo and the Valley.

“There is a lot of movement between Laredo and the RGV on the freight side. A lot of trucks move back and forth between the two, or they cross one and then they go to the other and they cross the other, and a lot of people move between those two regions as well.”

Short-term ‘wins’

Hundreds of stakeholders were consulted for the new master plan, on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Mays said the master plan “sets out a framework for a longterm strategy and a roadmap to address border infrastructure challenges and issues.” She said that if fully implemented it can “really facilitate the economic competitiveness for Texas moving forward.” And, she said, increase trade with Mexico and create jobs in Texas. “There are a lot of benefits for the border communities in terms of the opportunities that this plan, if implemented the way it has been outlined, would result in a win-win.”

Mays believes developing a plan for increased connectivity between the Valley and Laredo can be one of the early ‘wins” coming out of the new border master plan.

“Broadly, in the plan there are some short-term projects that have been identified by all the stakeholders on the TxDOT side, the three border regions have short term projects that will be implemented or be let even this year. So, you are going to see some of those corridor improvement projects go to let in 2021 and some in 2022,” Mays explained.

Caroline Mays

The three border regions covered in the master plan are the Valley, Laredo and El Paso. TxDOT has regional engineering offices in these markets.

“We are not waiting to see the plan completed to get those (short term project) done,” Mays said. 

“The border crossing owners are also making investments. They have planned capital improvements, operational improvements, technology  projects, advancements to be able to address those. CBP has their own short-term projects that we will see in places, including on the Mexican side as well.”

Mays said TXDOT has hired consultants to help us implement the master plan’s recommendations. “We are in the process of procuring another contract to help us advance the recommendations of the plan that we can.”

Mays give you an example of some of the things “we have in the hopper.” One is improving the technology used for border crossings. 

“I think right now we have about seven border crossings that measure border delays and border wait times. And CBP has embraced that as a way that is much more accurate than how they measure border delays and border wait times,” Mays said.

“So, our plan is to expand that to all the border crossings. So, we are working on that as we speak and hopefully we will be rolling that… and again, in the next six months as well.”

Mays cited improving the transportation connections between Laredo-and the Valley, and measuring border bridge wait times as examples of short-term “wins” that can come about as a result of the master plan.

“We have several things that we are working on that we should be able to roll out and show our stakeholders that this is not a plan that is going to sit on our shelves. We are going to challenge all the stakeholders that, you know, within the next six months or a year, at least achieve one recommendation the you gave us. At least one. If more, great,” Mays said.

“We have to show tangible advancements in addressing the issues and needs. We have laid it out very clearly and everybody agrees on it and everybody agreed on the strategies. So, let’s move forward and make it happen.”

Mays explained that the new document is the first comprehensive Texas-Mexico border-wide transportation master plan TxDOT has produced. She noted that around 2012-2013, TXDOT did three separate regional border master plans, for El Paso, Laredo, and the Valley. She said those were “very small in scope” and did not look at all the broader issues looked at in the new plan.

“It is the first comprehensive plan that TxDOT has done to understand what the key needs and issues are facing the movement of people and goods across the Texas-Mexico border.”

Mays ran through some of the stats. The Texas-Mexico border is the longest border shared between the U.S. and Mexico. “We account 1,200 miles and over 60 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade, with 28 border crossings.”

Mays said the new plan looked not only at the needs of the 28 border crossing points but also the corridors that flow from them. And, she said, the plan not only identified needs, but also considered ways to address them.

She then laid out the plan’s three-pronged approach. 

“What are the policy areas we need to address the needs? We had some policy impediments when it came to the border. But also corridors, anything from funding to collaboration to operations, all of those. So, what are some of the policies that need to be put in place? 

“The second one was, the plan identified program recommendations. What are some of the programs we need to put in place to be able to address some of the key issues and needs that have been identified? For instance we do measure border wait times and border delays. That is a program. Right now we have that in several border crossings but not all of them. So, how can we expand that program across all the 28 border crossings?

“And then, finally, the third leg of the recommendations is the project recommendations. This is kind of where the rubber meets the road. For instance, the Pharr Bridge wants to expand the number of lanes it has and they provided us with their project. So, in the next five years we are going to add three more lanes on our border crossing and we are going to expand the roadway on US 83 or I-69. That is an example of a project recommendation. So, that is the three-legged stool of the plan.”

Projected truck movements

Mays said the master plan projects Texas-Mexico trade will not just double but triple by the year 2050.

“What we are looking at today, the number of trucks, we had about four million and we look at our numbers to 2050. We are saying it will literally triple. Just if we go with what we are at right now and the projections we have seen, it will triple. It is going to be staggering when you really look at it.”

Mays was quick to point out that this projection does not take into account any increase in trade caused by USMCA or caused by the repositioning of manufacturing due to the COVID pandemic.

On the latter point, she said: “You are going to see, possibly, near-shoring and that could even mean much more goods moving through the Texas-Mexico border. When you look at the issues we had during the pandemic, we did not have the supplies to make PPE in North America so a lot of that was outside of North America. It became very challenging. You are going to see some of that move back to North America.”

Mays reiterated the point. “So, we are looking at most of our border crossings, even without improvements, seeing significant growth in truck traffic, and even our railroads seeing significant growth. You see that just continuing with the tripling of trade that we are projecting in 2050.”

Mays said with projections like these on the table it is imperative that both the border crossings and the corridors that connect to them are improved.

“You are going to see border delays be exacerbated if we do not make the investments needed to accommodate that growth. We already have challenges today. Imagine, we have four million now, if we go to about 12 million? What would that like on our corridors and our border crossings?” 

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