Good Morning. My name is Gilberto Hinojosa and I have served as Cameron County Judge since 1995. I thank you for allowing me to speak with you this morning on a matter of great importance to residents of our state as well as the nearly two million Texas residents who live along our international border. But before I do, I would like to thank Chairman Inhofe, Senator Cornyn and the members of this committee for the work they do in Washington. I would also like to welcome you Cameron County.
Over the last decade, Texas has passed New York to become the second most populous state in the union. Rising birth rates and the influx of millions of new residents have caused our state’s population to swell to more than 21 million persons. During that same period Cameron County has seen its population grow by 29%, from 260,000 to 335,000. It is easy to see the demands that growth has placed upon our infrastructure and the explosion of sustainable economic development in our communities. It has been said that if Texas is the front door of the United States’ trade corridor, then Cameron County is the screen door.
While you would not think of it by looking at us, Cameron County, specifically the City of Brownsville, mirrors Detroit, Michigan, in that we both provide four modes of transportation for trade. We both have seaports, airports, rail and international bridges (highways). No other two cities in the United States share this distinction. However, we do have one major difference. Cameron County does not have direct access to an Interstate Highway, but I’ll address that in greater detail later.
With the rapid development of NAFTA, our system has been overburdened due to an increased utilization of all modes of transportation. Like many border counties, Cameron County suffers an extra penalty from rapid growth because it is caught between two worlds. While sweeping economic changes and swift urbanization pull our region toward the future, the existing infrastructure is unable to keep pace. Compounded by dwindling availability of state funds, our local community is left to solve the problems created by increases in traffic and the subsequent congestion.
I want to discuss with you today is the reauthorization of TEA 21, now called The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act or SAFETEA. It is critical that SAFETEA addresses our existing and future needs, since this will be the only vehicle for new transportation projects over the next six years.
There are several issues that I would like to point out regarding SAFETEA and its construction. First, new language must be included that will provide funding for the maintenance of highways that meet interstate standards, connect international ports of entry and seaports. This will allow us to access vital funding and spur development that is not currently available through TEA 21.
Secondly, a narrower scope needs to be defined for international trade corridors. The Borders and Corridors Transportation Funding program was established to help border communities, and communities along international trade corridors, handle the increased traffic they faced from growing NAFTA trade. Unfortunately, the funding was heavily earmarked causing fewer dollars to be available for them and true international trade corridors. The resulting funds were diverted to the interior of the country and other non-trade international corridors. Shockingly only 14% of this funding ever made it to border communities.
We need your help to stop these diversions and redirect the money to its intended destination, the border areas. Border communities and international trade corridors play an important role in the overall national transportation system and they warrant their own programs and separate funding streams. Significant increases in funding levels, or even the percentage of funds available, for borders should be dedicated to communities that move the goods from border ports of entry to the national highway system. These funds could even go so far as to help with the implementation of the new and creative measures aimed at increasing security of our homeland.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rio Grande Valley is the only community not a part of the interstate highway system. With an over all population quickly approaching a million, not counting the hundreds of thousands who live and work across the river, we act as the one of the primary corridors for trade between the United States and Mexico. The quicker goods move through our communities the sooner they reach their destinations. South Texas, specifically Cameron and Hidalgo Counties must become a part of the Interstate Highway System for the good of not only our community, but the nation’s as well. We need continued support of federal funding for I-69. Currently, the Texas Department of Transportation has committed to let the contracts for the location and environmental studies on all segments of independent utility. The timely completion of these assessments will enable us to move forward on the I-69 program. However, we need additional funding for the I-69 portion in the State of Texas and the other I-69 corridor states. We recommend that priority be given to studies that emphasizes multi-modal planning, including planning for operational improvements that increase mobility, freight productivity, access to seaports, safety and security. We believe that locally I-69 will accomplish all that and more.
I am pleased to tell you that Cameron County will be investing approximately half a million dollars to improve access to the commercial primary inspection lanes for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. What this will do is provide dedicated truck lanes for commercial vehicles approaching the import lot for the federal inspection agencies. Ports of entry, such as the Veterans International Bridge and the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios, should be allocated funding under the SAFETEA to provide dedicated truck lanes that connect the international bridges to the highway system. The movement of products would be greatly improved and the trade routes would become much safer and less congested.
The final issue I would like to address is the consolidation of existing railroad tracks and switching yards, more commonly know as railroad relocation projects. Cameron County has developed a plan that includes relocating existing rail lines and virtually bypasses the cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and San Benito. We plan to eliminate 100 at grade crossings and reduce the daily traffic volume at these crossings from half a million to just over a hundred thousand vehicles. With each crossing representing a moment of danger, we can easily deliver four hundred thousand vehicles out of harms way.
I am not overstating the case. Cameron County has ranked as high as fourth in the State of Texas in auto-train collisions. In the 1990’s 197 auto-train accidents occurred resulting the loss of fifteen lives. In Matamoros, Mexico, our international neighbor, 17 people were killed during the years of 2000 and 2001 alone.
In addition to accidents, derailments create major safety concerns locally as hazardous materials are transported via rail between Mexico and the United States through Cameron County. On top of this, daily switching operations block vital crossing and deny emergency vehicles access to highly urbanized areas of the county.
This is why I am requesting your support of Senate Bill 1329, which was introduced by Senators Lott and Kerry. This bill requires the Secretary of Transportation to implement a grant program that provides financial assistance for local railroad relocation projects similar to Cameron County’s. Federal participation is crucial to the success of these programs. These projects not only promote more efficient trade, but they create safer communities.
Senators, managing growth so that it benefits the United States is a goal vital to the future of our community, and an objective that cries out for comprehensive planning and dedicated resources. We offer the plans and we look to you for the dedicated resources. The present situation threatens the future of our economic viability by limiting progress and hampering opportunity. By giving border communities and trade corridors these much needed resources for construction and highway maintenance you can help to protect the accomplishments of some of Texas’ hardest working residents. And at the same time securing sustainable economic growth and trade. I urge you to act on the hope and promise of this new century.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today, I humbly request that you remember Cameron County in your deliberations in Washington.