Is growth outpacing the Valley's infrastructure?
The population of the Rio Grande Valley continues to grow at an explosive rate with approximately 1.5 million people climbing to near 2.5 million people in 15 years. The infrastructure needs are going to be tremendous.
As Pedro Alvarez, District Engineer of the Pharr Region for Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), opens a map with colored lines running through the eight counties of TxDOT’s most southern district the excitement in his voice is evident.
While the map may be a simple piece of paper the red, green and brown lines represent $1.1 billion in projects under the 10-year unified transportation plan (UTP).
The I-2/I69E interchange is by far one of the highest priorities for TxDOT. Alvarez admits some folks will look at the I-2/I69E interchange and criticize it by saying it was not enough. But looking back at the facts and numbers of the design that was conceived in the mid 1980s the traffic was about 25,000 vehicles a day and currently it is 200,000 vehicles a day.
“When you start looking at eight times the amount of traffic there is no way you could have anticipated that,” Alvarez explained.
An analogy Alvarez likes to use is a junior high school having 1,000 students. All of a sudden the need for the junior high is 8,000 students. The school district now has to look at redistricting, perhaps portable buildings or shipping students to other schools.
HIGH PRIORITY PROJECTS
TxDOT has to consider those types of things as well. It comes down to proper planning and partnership along with looking at the footprint of the Rio Grande Valley to consider population growth and to understand and acknowledge that with population growth comes increased traffic.
Approximately $1 billion was spent to upgrade U.S. Highway 83, U.S. Highway 281 and U.S. Highway 77, which are now interstate facilities. The one billion dollars was for a third lane in each direction. When the project was completed TxDOT identified a fourth lane was needed.
“But wait a minute! It took us 10 years to spend all this money and do improvements,” Alvarez said. “We will not be able to add a fourth lane with the right-a-way footprint that is currently in place.”
Take the three lanes in each direction on Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin and the amount of vehicles traveling there, if that is feasible with three lanes why should there be an expansion in the Rio Grande Valley.
There are other projects just in Hidalgo County that are going to play a significant role.
State Highway 68, which is a north/south corridor in the Alamo/Donna area, will provide some relief for I-69C. Then there is the Hidalgo County Loop as a whole. Basically the center would be the I2/I-69E Interchange but TxDOT is looking at a loop system that would provide access points. The Hidalgo County RMA has taken the lead on the project.
The Monte Cristo corridor (F.M. 1925) will connect I-69C to I-69E.
In Cameron County there is going to be a second causeway to access South Padre Island as well as an outer parkway.
The next project along the US 281 corridor is from F.M. 490 up to SH 186 in San Manuel and completing the leg of I-69C. The process will take longer because of residential areas. Cost is also a factor considering it costs $10 million a mile to build an interstate.
Those are the types of projects being identified as a high priority and being properly funded.
LONG-RANGE PLANNING IS CRUCAL
The long-range plan map Alvarez is pointing to has several blue lines. The blue lines on the map are unfunded projects. There is a loop that circles the McAllen/Edinburg/Mission/Pharr area, a relief route from Rio Grande City to Roma on the north side of the populated area and route that would cut drive time by an hour from Roma to South Padre Island.
“Potentially on the new system outlined with the blue line, the trip will be two hours,” Alvarez said of reaching the beach from Gladiator Country. “Saving an hour of travel time is huge.”
TxDOT has a master plan that identifies the major goals for the area. Any thriving metropolitan area has major arteries coming to the center, where around the arteries is a loop and everything is interconnected.
The goal is to show elected officials a long-range plan that identifies major corridors and like anywhere else, beginning with an interstate and goes to smaller roadways that connect the interstate through arterials.
To be successful at his post, Alvarez will need to deliver projects in a timely manner.
Projects progress gradually. Alvarez and his teams need to expedite projects which include an environmental aspect, schematics, acquiring right-of-ways, adjusting utilities, and then going to construction all while meeting state and federal requirements.
For the department, balance is key.
“We can go to a construction site and tell the contractor they're going to work 24/7, seven days a week,” Alvarez said. “Instead of building a job in 36 months, they'll finish in 24 months.”
Cutting a job by a year would be great, however there is a premium to pay. Extra resources can potentially take a project from $50 million to $80 million.
Thirty million dollars could have funded another project. At the end of the day TxDOT is mainly funded by the gasoline tax and while projects need to be completed in a timely manner, they also need to be good stewards of the taxpayer money.
As a McAllen native, Alvarez would like to look at the Rio Grande Valley functioning like a one metropolitan area. The state distributes 80 percent of their transportation budget to Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio because of their size. The Rio Grande Valley as a whole would be the fifth largest MPO and have greater access to funds.
It comes down to proper planning and partnership. By partnership Alvarez refers to working with local governments like cities, counties, MPOs, Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) and any other partners willing to work with TxDOT to move forward.
Generally speaking, TxDOT works well with cities. Twenty years ago the Rio Grande Valley was divided and everyone was looking out for their best interests.
“As we continue to grow people are realizing what happens in McAllen affects Mission, Edinburg, Pharr and other communities including Cameron County,” Alvarez said. “I think now we're starting to see a more cooperative effort moving forward and understanding what are the regional type of projects that will help facilitate the movement of people and goods.”
Alvarez admits the Rio Grande Valley is not there yet.
There have been talks of merging the Hidalgo County MPO, Harlingen/San Benito MPO and the Brownsville MPO. The idea is to talk about projects, work together as one, and utilize federal funding coming through TxDOT and out to the communities for projects.
The idea means stakeholders being involved like the elected officials and the public all working together as one and being united in prioritizing and developing projects that would provide the biggest bang for the buck from the prospective of allowing the Valley to utilize its resources. Funding is obvious but also materials, equipment and people working as one to identify the highest priority down and stretch dollars.
This means 42 entities should consider merging between Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.
“Those are a lot of different needs but the whole idea is coming together as one, if we ever get there and hope we do one day, we would be able to provide the highest priority projects,” Alvarez said.
The best projects always rise to the top. The projects that benefit the greater community are always going to flow to the top. Alvarez understands smaller projects in communities need attention and working with TxDOT will help.
TxDOT as a whole cannot force the issue but organizations like the Rio Grande Valley Partnership can help with the momentum going forward. Also included as momentum connections would be the Association of General Contractors and consultants doing design for the area as well.
Alvarez sees it about economic development. In order for any business to thrive there needs to be access to the transportation system.
Alvarez hopes the public utilizing the roads can examine the construction and notice it as a greater good. At TxDOT, Alvarez and his team are open to any suggestions or ideas that will help improve the transportation system. Sharing an idea with them would be greatly appreciated.
“Be involved, make sure that your voice is heard,” he said. “Make sure that your elected officials are also involved in the process to ensure we're all working cooperatively.”