Lecture Hall, 80 Fort Brown University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) Science Education Technology Building, Brownsville, Texas 78521
President, Rio Grande Valley Partnership/Chamber of Commerce
A special thanks to Ana Maria Garcia and the other staff who helped organize this meeting. We appreciate your hard work for this hearing and for all of us every day.
I am providing you with an Executive Summary of our Regional Mobility Plan for 2003 to 2030. This is the third time since 1992 that the four counties, the many cities of the Valley and three MPOs have joined together and taken a truly regional approach to transportation planning. Obviously, regional efforts can be stressful. When we started in the early 90s, I had a full head of wavy dark brown hair. But, it has been worth it. Because of leaders like you at the national level, leaders like Chairman Johnson at the state level and our fine local officials, we have accomplished some amazing things in the last decade. We are ready to do the same, with your guidance, in the coming decade.
Before mentioning a few of the priorities developed by the Mobility Task Force over the last year, it might be good to provide a little background on our region.
Last century, Texas and Oklahoma were being called the frontier. Our region is still the frontier, or “ la frontera” as northern Mexico is known. We are the frontier and the door to trade in the Americas. Wat happens in our border area is important to the economy of Oklahoma, San Antonio, Houston and beyond. As you are all aware Mexico is growing and becoming more prosperous and able to buy more U.S. goods. U.S. trade with Mexico is now approximately $250 billion. And, with the advent of new trade agreements with Central American countries, there is an increasing opportunity for trade growth. For example, the new Toyota facility in San Antonio may ship finished vehicles to Mexico and Central America, and the state of Oklahoma is continuing to ship increased amounts of exports to Mexico and Central America. Many of these shipments will be sent on trucks through the Valley.
We have opportunities, and we welcome the economic development associated with trade. Our population is growing extremely fast, and we are very fortunate to have a young population who will enter the workforce in the coming years. In the last decade, the Valley has grown by almost 40%, and almost 35 percent of that population is under the age of 18.
But, it is not just our population that uses the highway system in the Valley. Factoring in the 2 million people on the Mexican side of the border who come to the Valley to shop, work or conduct business, there are 3 million people in the bi-national metropolitan area and that figure is projected to be 6 million or more by 2030. Northern Mexico has undergone an economic revitalization in the last decade. It is now home to a number of new companies that are injecting new dollars into our economy. If it were not for the relationship afforded by the maquila program, then many of the jobs created in the US and Mexico would be in Asia or elsewhere.
While we welcome the benefits of these new opportunities, we have seen enormous increases in the level of truck and train traffic carrying goods to and from Mexico. There are now more than 500 at-grade rail crossings in the Valley and rail traffic is doubling. And, few people know that almost 1 out of every 2 vehicles crossing to or from Mexico and 30% of all truck traffic use the bridges in the Valley.
New developments in Mexico also impact our region. Later this year, Mexico will complete a new highway connecting San Luis Potosí and Ciudad Victoria in Tamaulipas, and you are all invited to the dedication with the Partnership. This new route, shown on the back of the map, will cut four to six hours off the journey from Mexico City to the United States. This new route, which we have strongly supported, will bring even more truck traffic through our region.
The Rio Grande Valley Partnership has an office in Ciudad Victoria and has worked closely with officials in Mexico on this and many other projects. We recognize our important link to our southern neighbors. The bottom line is what happens in Mexico affects the Valley, the state and nation.
While this economic and trade growth is great, it results in two things critical to our transportation planning. First, our cities are growing out into rural areas and becoming more densely settled. Second, the trade traffic is added to the traffic of our region. Truck traffic has increased 143% in the Valley and traffic has increased 60% to 70% along U.S. 83 and U.S. 281.
We have to develop new roadways to move around and between our cities, and better connections from the bridges on through our region to the north. Now is the time to secure the needed right-of-way for the future. If we do not, then the cost will be astronomical in the future. Now is the time to explore dedicated truck lanes and new ways to finance needed improvements as I will discuss in a moment.
I’d would like to focus now on the Mobility Plan and touch on some of the major projects that are outlined in the Executive Summary inside the map. As you can see, interstate highway service is a major priority. Over ten years ago, we joined together with cities and states from Texas to Illinois to establish the I-69 Alliance. Once complete, I69 will serve as the most direct trade route, connecting the industrial centers of North America through the primary border crossings. You will notice on the map cover, Mr. Chairman, will connect to your state more directly through I69 to I37 to I35, but we must get US 281 and US 77 up to interstate standards.
The interstate system was initially designed as an east to west
system. But trade flows have shifted, particularly after the passage of NAFTA, from east-west to north-south, yet our infrastructure system has not evolved to reflect this change.
All total, I-69 Corridor states and states using the I-69 Corridor and/or its border-crossing ports account for over 63% of total U.S. truck-borne trade with North America. And, As Mayor Franz pointed out, approximately 80% of all U.S.-Mexico trade is by trucks crossing the Texas border. To remind you, in the Valley, we have no interstate level highway. The truck traffic on US 77 and US 281 goes through the middle of towns and school zones. Construction of I69, including interim improvements, is a major priority. And, we support, as I will discuss in a moment, the proposal to designation of I69 as an interstate in the Valley now because of the link to international bridges.
The plan also identifies the importance of improved connections to the bridges, expanded east-west connections between bridges and near the river and intercity loops. We have to plan these routes now and secure the land before development makes cost prohibitive.
We also have to work to shift some of our trade cargo to train. Chairman Johnson and the Commission are working on the Trans-Texas Corridor plan, which will include a high-speed rail system. Getting some of this cargo onto trains can help all of us. But, we must get the rail and switching stations out of the middle of our cities. Too many cities experience the safety problems associated with the increasing frequency and length of the trains. The Mobility Plan has identified a number of these new rail projects.
Chairman Johnson, the Task Force recognizes that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the state to fund all of the statewide transportation projects, so, as I mentioned earlier, we are exploring creative funding solutions including Regional Mobility Authorities and dedicated truck lanes, to assist the development of construction plans. We welcome learning more about the potential for tolls as a means of needed projects, and hope to learn from Chairman Inhofe’s state. I understand that the Oklahoma Turnpike System, through its PikePass programs, receives $60 million annually from tolls and serves various areas in the state.
We are grateful for the Transportation Commission’s vision and efforts, along with our local legislative delegation, to pass HB 3588 and HJR 28 (Proposition 14) this last session. Both measures will give Texas new financing tools to generate additional sources of transportation funding. We are ready to work with the Commission and help educate our community on the importance of this proposition. In fact, we are preparing some guest editorials and other public information to encourage voters to approve Proposition 14 in September.
We want to work with Congress on the Reauthorization of TEA-21. We believe that ISTEA and TEA-21 have been an integral part of making our transportation system safe, efficient and productive. They recognized the unique needs of the border area. We are seeking passage of an amendment to TEA-21 or new language in the federal reauthorization bill that will allow our I69 segments here to be designated as interstates since they connect to a U.S. deep-water port or to a U.S. port of entry. This would allow those portions of U.S. 281, U.S.77 and FM 511 in the Valley to be accepted as part of the Interstate System today.
Hopefully, SAFETEA will expand state and local funding flexibility as well as enhance and streamline the environmental review process for transportation projects. And, hopefully, it will help us with I69 and our other border-related transportation needs.
The Mobility Plan is the product of regional leaders recognizing the importance of looking beyond the needs of a given community and focusing on the needs of the region, state and nation. Your presence today indicates that you share in these beliefs. We are ready are work with and assist in any way we can. We thank you for coming here today and for everything you do for our region, our state and our nation.