PHARR, Texas – The Texas Texas Department of Transportation’s Pharr District engineer and the outgoing chairman of the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization have outlined the Valley’s key transportation projects. 

TxDOT’s Pete Alvarez and RGVMPO’s Ambrosio Hernandez gave interviews to the Rio Grande Guardian at a recent groundbreaking ceremony for the $303 million Pharr Interchange project. 

At the event, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., said transportation funding for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties has shot up in recent years. 

TxDOT Pharr District Engineer Pete Alvarez

“The Unified Transportation Plan has the major projects identified for the RGV, projects like US 77, US 281, the toll 365 project, East Loop, IBTC, and all the other various projects in our area,” said Alvarez.

“It has increased from $595 million back in 2015 to $2.2 billion. That is billion with a ‘B’ over the last six or seven years. So we are very excited for the opportunities that it is providing.”

IBTC stands for International Bridge Trade Corridor. The project, being spearheaded by Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority, is designed to take truck traffic coming in from Mexico off neighborhood streets. The 365 Loop project is also in Hidalgo County and is also being administered by HCRMA. The East Loop project is in Brownsville and is being built by Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority (CCRMA). 

Asked if a second causeway for South Padre Island was in the Unified Transportation Plan, Alvarez said: “That cannot be in there yet because that is an off-system project. We are are working with CCRMA and the great folks out there in Cameron County to look at funding opportunities as the project continues to mature. They are working on the environmental studies, trying to get it ready.”

Alvarez said off-system means it is not an FM road, a US road or a state highway. 

Hernandez, the chairman of RGVMPO, outlined his group’s priorities now that the Valley has been allocated more transportation dollars.

“The major projects are the IBTC freeway that goes from the Pharr International Bridge, through San Juan up to 281 and underneath the airport of Edinburg. The 550 toll road in Cameron County, the 365 toll road that mirrors the Military Highway towards Mission. It is part of the original RMA loop and many, many other multimillion projects that connect everybody,” Hernandez said.

RGVMPO Chairman Ambrosio Hernandez

Also asked about a second causeway for South Padre Island, Hernandez said: “There has also been talk at the RGVMPO that we want another causeway that connects the mainland to SPI. We know it has to be north of where the current causeway is. And we are working on that project. That is absolutely a priority for the RGVMPO.”

Hernandez added: “Everything has a pecking order and involves local contributions from SPI, and Cameron County as well. It (the second causeway project) is moving along and I foresee that as we obtain more funding and we spend local dollars to accelerate that project. There is no reason why that second causeway should not be built.”

In his remarks at the Pharr Interchange groundbreaking ceremony, TTC Chairman Bugg said both he and Governor Greg Abbott are “very focused” on the RGV “thriving in the future.” He said: “My policy from day one has been very simple: execute, execute, execute.”

Bugg pointed out that Abbott appointed him to the TTC soon after becoming governor in 2015. He became chairman in Sept 2017. 

Bugg said he and the TTC are guided in their transportation planning by the Texas state demographer’s population projections. He said the current population of Texas is 29.1 million. 

“The state demographer projects 47 million by 2050. Which is about a 62 percent increase in population,” Bugg said. 

As for the three counties in the RGVMPO, Bugg said the population in 2010 stood at 1,203,123. In 2020 it was 1,311,962. “That is 108,839 more people. An increase of 9.05 percent. We understand that this growth that you have experienced has led to more congestion, has led to more needs.” 

Bugg said he was pleased local leaders such as Hernandez and the Valley’s state lawmakers, such as Sen. Juan Hinojosa and Rep. Terry Canales, took heed of his advice and helped merge the region’s three metropolitan planning organizations into one. Hinojosa and Canales, along with state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg, Jr.

“Just work together and create an RGV Metropolitan Planning Organization. I assure you the funding will increase,” Bugg said he told them. He then explained just how much more money has come in, in part because of the unification of the three MPOs.

“The funding has increased from 2015, when Gov. Abbott was first elected, and he appointed me in February 2015 to the commission… the Unified Transportation Plan, which is our ten year modeling plan, had a total of $595 million over a ten-year period of time. That was adopted in August of 2014 before Governor Abbott took office and he appointed me to the commission,” Bugg explained.

“I want to share with you that since that $595 million in 2015… in less than seven years we have increased that by a total of $270 percent to a total in the UTP that we just adopted two weeks ago to $2.2 billion for this area. So, we have increased your funding from $595 million to $2.2 billion.”

There was a round of applause for Bugg when he said this.

“People like Senator Hinojosa and Representative Canales believed us when we said if you merge your three MPOs, it be better for your community as a whole. You can speak as one voice and your funding will increase. Ladies and gentlemen, today I am assuring you with this news and the action we just took that it has increased to that $2.2 billion, up from the $595 million that you were at, at the very beginning. And I am very proud to be able to announce that today.”

In his remarks, Sen. Hinojosa spoke about an increase in truck traffic caused by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“The key thing here is the growing commercial trucking, the growing commercial business, the growing commercial trade we have with Mexico, which is in the billions and billions. We just changed the NAFTA agreement to the USMCA agreement. It will produce more business, more commerce,” Hinojosa predicted.

Interviewed afterwards about the Unified Transportation Plan, Hinojosa said: “It increases our funding substantially. We are one of the fastest growing regions in the state of Texas. We are now taking a regional approach to the many issues and many challenges we face here in the Valley. For example, our transportation is key to the growth of the economy and to the growth of the trade that is taking place with Mexico. We need to expand our infrastructure. We need to expand our transportation system, our highways and relieve not only some of the congestion with some of the trucks that are now coming through our neighborhoods and schools. Get them out to the expressway, out of our neighborhoods. The only way we can do that is work as a team. Already there has been a substantial increase in funding.”

Editor’s Note: The above story has been updated. A previous version incorrectly listed the name of TXDOT Pharr District Engineer Pete Alvarez. We apologize for any confusion caused.

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